What is the Future of the History of the Humanities?

While the writing of the history of the humanities is an old practice, it is only in the last decade that it has been formalized as a coherent field of research. Interestingly, this has more or less occurred parallel to the development of the new history of knowledge. After a period of rapid expansion, including numerous studies and publications, a string of successful conferences, a new journal, and several professorships at various universities, the time seemed ripe to reflect upon the state and direction of the history of the humanities as a new (or at least reformed) field of research, which by now can be seen as having a history in itself. Indeed, such reflexive efforts are already underway, as evidenced by the new series of theme issues in the journal History of Humanities called ‘Classics of the Humanities’ as well as the upcoming volume Writing the History of the Humanities (ed. Herman Paul, Bloomsbury 2022).

With this in mind, the digital symposium “What is the Future of the History of the Humanities: International Reflections and Swedish Contributions” was organized by Isak Hammar (Stockholm University) and Hampus Östh Gustafsson (Uppsala University) at the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge on December 8, 2021. In particular, the symposium invited reflections over where the field is headed, as well as what themes or topics have proven particularly fruitful (or remained underdeveloped) so far.

The symposium was attended by 46 participants from a wide range of countries, indicating the global approach encouraged by the founders of history of the humanities. In fact, the first presentation, given by Rens Bod (Professor in digital humanities and the history of the humanities, University of Amsterdam), addressed the challenges that come with the aim of “going global”, stressing the need of a polycentric history of humanities scholarship. In the second presentation, Herman Paul (Professor of history of humanities, Leiden University) underlined the diversity of the humanities, advancing the need of a multi-layered, genealogical history of the humanities in order to capture the tensions and “palimpsestic heritage” of these subjects. This was followed by Suzanne Marchand’s (Boyd Professor of European intellectual history, Louisiana State University) reflections on what the history of the humanities can, and cannot, learn from the history of science. Marchand articulated the need of new theoretical interventions and also urged for some caution as not to fall into the trap of letting this type of history writing become too cynical in its approach to the past.

These more general reflections on the current prospects of the field were followed by a session providing concrete examples of new theoretical and empirical approaches from the Swedish scene, where a wide number of publications on the history and societal legitimacy of the humanities are currently under way. Johan Östling (Lund University) and Anton Jansson (University of Gothenburg) presented their research project (with Ragni Svensson) on the humanities and the postwar public sphere in Sweden, thus arguing for a social expansion of the scope of history of the humanities, in addition to the above-mentioned geographical expansion. Kirsti Niskanen (Stockholm University) then discussed the concept of scholarly personae that has become central to several strands of history of humanities/knowledge, stressing the relevance of gender perspectives as well as the inclusion of everyday practices and collective dimensions of scholarly activities. Linus Salö (Stockholm University) further emphasized the importance of highlighting extra-scientific impact of the humanities (or human sciences) in novel ways, as their historical mark on society often has gone unnoticed. In order to make these effects visible, however, a new conceptual metalanguage might be needed. This challenge was also addressed by Tobias Dalberg (Uppsala University), discussing how the humanities may be constructed as an object of study without taking certain boundaries or institutions for granted. The final presentation by Klara Müller (Royal Institute of Technology), considered quality articulations in the humanities and further accentuated the need of approaching knowledge as “in the making”, thus adopting perspectives from STS.

The lively discussions at the symposium suggest that the full potential of history of the humanities is yet far from reached. Further discussions on its future prospects, as well as the role it might play within a wider constellation of history of knowledge, are likely to follow.

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