For philology may hold out not only the promise of reviving the humanities, but also of reestablishing the lost unity of the human sciences with the sciences of nature. Part of philology's apparent irrelevance today has to do with what we may diagnose as our society's radical and unprecedented presentism. No textual culture in human history has been so indifferent to its own past, and indeed this indifference strongly suggests that, though we continue to Tweet and to 'text' and to share memes that consist in part in strings of words, we are in fact moving into a post-textual era....This presentism not only cuts us off from what was long understood to be a central concern of the human sciences --to know who we are by knowing where we've come from--, it also perpetuates and deepens the contingent and unnecessary separation, as I've suggested, of the human from the natural sciences. Understood as philology, as a search for origins, the human sciences in fact share a great deal with a number of other sorts of inquiry often cordoned off from the human sciences on the other side of what has been called, since C. P. Snow introduced that term in 1959, the 'two-cultures divide'. Philology shares aims and objectives, and sometimes also methods, with archaeology, as also with paleontology, evolutionary biology, and perhaps even those branches of theoretical physics that deal with the distant origins of the universe. All seek to account for how the world got to be the way it is....
History...should be elevated to its rightful place, as the reigning science in the emerging universities of the 21st century. It is the best hope for an exit from the current dérive of the humanities, and, much more than this, it is the best hope for overcoming the false and arbitrary rift between the human and the natural sciences. History is considerably larger than philology, yet philology itself may be much larger than it is now perceived to be. Pollock notes that philology "has been everywhere that texts have been, indeed, in a way that we have yet to fully grasp, everywhere that language has been." This ubiquity was however grasped, for example, by the early Islamic field linguists who went out to build their lexica from the oral poetry of the Bedouins. Nor, at other times in history, as for Leibniz and William Jones, was the boundary of the genealogist's project set at the limits of language, but indeed extended to all the things named in language, to the world itself. In their diminished self-understanding, today's humanists have relinquished all these things to the natural scientists, who for the most part do not know what to make of them. By rediscovering its unity with philology in the shared project of history, natural science stands to gain as much as the humanities do: to rediscover its lofty purpose of enabling us to make sense of the world, and of our place in it.--Justin Smith "A Forgotten Field Could Save the Humanities," The Chronicle of Higher Education. [Behind a paywall; HT DailyNous.]
Justin Smith is probably the most creative and playful historian of (early modern) philosophy today.* So, I was sad to learn that he is "increasingly" leaving it "behind in view of its woeful provincialism." In his piece he also rejects 'localism' (which he associates with a deplorable, it seems, "new strain of identitarianism in the humanities.") He embraces, rather, "a global, rather than provincial," perspective. (He is quoting Sheldon Pollock, but in context he is endorsing it.) From context it's clear that the 'global' is something distinct from the 'universal' (or, at least, the purportedly universal that he associates with Anglo professional philosophy). Presumably, a universal perspective homogenizes, whereas the global makes space for differences due to (again quoting Pollock approvingly) "historicity, constructedness, and changeability," not in the least in the trajectories of knowledge production. This becomes clear from Smith's dazzling display of examples of "early Islamic field linguists," the Nietzsche-Wilamowitz debate, William Jones's research on the names of plant species in Sanskrit and other South Asian languages, and Leibniz's vision.
It is worth noting that the natural antonyms of the province and 'provincial,' are not just the urbane and broad-minded, but also empire or imperial. And, in fact, the material and administrative precondition for the the global vision is often some kind of empire. And while we tend to think of colonial empires as great projects of subjugation and effacement of local difference, there are empires in which there is unity while respecting provincial diversity--it's these empires that most need (to quote Smith) a "unified project." One way to generate such a project, is to project "the lost unity" (emphasis added). These projects are fueled by restorative nostalgia that is, simultaneously, hyper-modern and a source of immense creativity. Such projects also involve an insistence that perspective matters and that hopeful greatness needs to be projected on a larger canvass. [For an excellent literary treatment of such matters, recall John Williams' novel Augustus.]
While Smith may wish nothing to do with something as crass as a military empire, his project does involve elements of restorative nostalgia (e.g., "elevated to its rightful place, as the reigning science") and a fondness for taking about 'we' when it suits him. He insists, also, that the present view of philology is mistakenly diminutive (see also the "diminished" view of the humanities) and "yet philology itself may be much larger than it is now perceived to be" in order to be more "lofty." In addition, he is not against the (selective, prudent) use of force because he insists that there must be 'compulsory instruction' in order to ensure that certain kinds of forgetting does not occur ("no one ever forgets that in the end there are no truly atemporal sciences.").
Like many who embrace such restorative nostalgia (Carlyle, Nietzsche, etc.), the criticism of the present is acute and insightful:
"Among the humanities, philosophy...is surely the field in which European area studies has most successfully disguised itself as a universal and timeless form of inquiry. How often do we hear philosophy professors demur, when the subject of, say, classical Indian logic comes up, that they "regrettably don't know anything about that." What they really mean is: "My professional identity is wrapped up with my not knowing anything about that." This is something we learn as graduate students: a period of socialization in which we learn not only how to display our knowledge of, and commitment to, a given circumscribed domain, but also learn how to scoff, subtly, at whatever research interest falls even slightly beyond that domain. This is an acquired syndrome, transmitted from faculty to graduate students in the course of their own professional reproduction.**
My sense is that Smith's diagnosis is an apt characterization of our teacher's generation (although we both know exemplars that displayed different attitudes). The new generation of professional philosophers is embracing a different ethic; one in which any topic or puzzle is a legitimate opportunity to display technical virtuosity. Such technical sophistication is, of course, compatible with (although need not entail it) a thin understanding of the topic (and its historicity, etc.)
An impatient reader sympathetic to (various bits of) Smith's project may suggest that my remarks thus far are distracting from the main agenda of his piece: his research agenda, that is, to combat 'presentism' and to promote a unified project in which the humanities and the sciences jointly "make sense of the world, and of our place in it," in part, by taking our path toward the present seriously. There are certainly opportunities for such thick collaboration between the humanities and (for convenience sake) the life-sciences. (About a decade ago, I penned a series of three papers in which I claimed that the history of astronomy and the history of economics are crucial to astronomy and economics (conceived as a policy science.)) I do hope that some enterprising university Rektor of a "non-Euro-American, university of the 21st century," hires or consults with Justin to help her implement a university with three faculties (a 'faculty of history', a 'faculty of the atemporal sciences', a 'faculty of new stuff') along the lines envisioned by him.
But in his essay, Smith offers us the matter, but not the form of this unity which, thus, becomes unexpectedly its own telos. Smith offers us the institutional strategy without the standard that may justify or vivify it. Without such a vision it is not obvious why the experts of the present and future will join in the shared enterprise (and they will persuade their paymasters to block it). To put the point jokingly, what's missing is the sense in the sense-making (I might say, the utopian concepts). Previously, this form was supplied by (say) revelation or philosophy. By bagging Spinoza's criticism of revelation, Smith cuts himself off from the former. By turning his back on the latter, he seems to leave himself without resources. But, perhaps, he thinks, with the Romantics, that poetry or art can supply the form. That uncertain, transformative path must seem tempting.