Rhetoric in Contemporary Theory (Post-1800)

R770 — Spring 2022

John Arthos
Days and Times
9:45a - 12:45p T (4 CR)
Course Description

*AUTHORIZATION REQUIRED (Non-English Department students please contact the instructor first)

TOPIC: The Character of the Humanities

You are in the early stages of a career and a way of life that is metamorphosing before our eyes. It is not possible to know what turns the current transformation of the academic landscape will take and what it will evolve into, so predictions about its future life are not likely to be useful or productive. But we do have some agency for the future by knowing better our own fundamental commitments, understanding what

the humanities are now and have been, what their value is for ourselves, for education, for the world, and what we should fight for, either to preserve or change. If you know these things, if you have their deep background, if you can articulate them wisely and forcefully, you will have a useful guide and counsel going forward to respond to whatever circumstances are thrown your way.

What is “the humanities”? It would be difficult to profess or defend something without first knowing what it is. But it turns out that the humanities as a name for something is not at all easy to fix. What is in a word? What distinguishes the digital humanities or environmental humanities from digital communication or environmental studies in the social sciences? If there’s no distinction and we’ve passed over into the Valhalla of interdisciplinarity, why use the word at all?

To be sure, the word does not translate well. Accidents of language and culture result in significantly different and not wholly reconcilable terminology (studia humanitatis, humaniora, belles lettres, schöne Wissenschaften, aleulum al'iinsania). In fact it is often easier to define what we call the humanities in contrast to what it is not – the sciences, the natural sciences, the social sciences, STEM. But here again the terminology eludes precision. Science (episteme, scientia, Wissenschaft, eulim, kexue) shifts its meaning dramatically over time, carrying its fraught ideological battlelines along with it. Indeed, all the words we use to discriminate science and the humanities are vexed terms of equivocation: Knowledge, culture, truth, method. So partly what we want to do in this course is trace the historical and cultural paths and furrows of these words so that we can try to get a grip on what is at stake in them.

As an institutional category, the humanities labor under a number of instabilities, equivocations, and prejudices: Singular or plural? How closely bound to cognate (linguistic and historical) “humanism”? What implied privilege accorded to “the human” as distinct from animal or mineral? How far within the gravitational pull of the secular? How deeply rooted in masculinist and racist presumptions? Defenders of the humanities, haunted by issues of status marginality, have bridled at older associations with cultivation (Bildung, high culture, ornament, refinement, finishing)—with recessed or overt gender implications very much in play. All these cultural, political, institutional tensions and equivocations live within the term, making it a lively field of contestation in which institutional power, personal livelihoods, and educational goals are at stake.

Finally, the humanities is a culturally and historically located term rather than a timeless and universal concept. We will study the inflection points in the long history where certain fateful paths in the messy flow of intellectual cultures were either intermingled or chosen over others (classical African civilizations from at least the 10th century BCE, Greece in the 5th century, imperial Rome in the 1st century, the Tang dynasty from the sixth century CE, the medieval Islamic world from the eighth century CE, Italy in the fourteenth century, France and England in the early 17th century, Germany in the late 19th century). We will be focusing primarily on the Western history of the humanities because of our institutional location, but always with an eye to its Eurocentric and Anglocentric biases through a wider global lens.

The course readings fall into three groups: (1) original historical documents and historical research on the humanities (e.g., Erasmus, Melanchthon, Kant, Humboldt, Dilthey), (2) theory about what the humanities is (e.g., Heidegger, C. P. Snow, Arendt, Derrida, Bernal, Olúwolé, Rancières, Deleuze, Said, Thiong’o, Haraway, Nussbaum), and (3) rhetorical foundations of the humanities (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Quintilian, Grassi, Leff, Gaonkar, McCloskey).