Sunday, August 12, 2018

A new humanities? Glad you asked

Here's a report I prepared in 1985, my last year on the faculty at The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (aka RPT). I was one of a handful of faculty given a small summer grant to design a new and interdisciplinary undergraduate course for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I imagined that this course would be team taught by faculty representing the three different modes of thought in the human sciences (English for les sciences de l'homme). These three modes of thought don't have standard names and I've never been able to come up with labels I found satisfactory. Still, they are:
1) discursive, hermeneutic, interpretive, such as literary criticism and most history before cliometrics,
2) social/behavioral science, characterized by statistical analysis of data (the corpus linguistics methods of so-called "distant reading" fall under this rubric), and
3) structural, linguistic, even computational, where computation is a model for human thought and activity.
The idea of the course was to expose undergraduate students to these three modes of thought as applied to some one topic. And, incidentally, it might do the same for the faculty teaching the course.

Now THAT would be a new humanities. It's probably not possible within the current institutional setting, but really, it has to happen some day. It's the only thing that makes intellectual sense.
Policy, Strategy, Tactics: Intellectual Integration in the Human Sciences, an Approach for a New Era

The human sciences encompass a wide variety of disciplines: literary studies, musicology, art history, anthropology (cultural and physical), psychology (perceptual, cognitive, evolutionary, Freudian, etc.), sociology, political science, economics, history, cultural geography, and so forth. In this paper I process to organize courses and curricula aso as to include: 1) material from three different methodological styles (interpretive, behavioral or social scientific, and structural/constructive: linguistics, cognitive science), 2) historical and structural/functional approaches, and 3) materials from diverse cultures. The overall scheme is exemplified by two versions of a course on Signs and Symbols, one organized around a Shakespeare play and the other organized around traditional disciplines.
Download the full report:


  1. What a rich account, Bill. I appreciate how you not only offer the framework (ahead of its time), but see it through a class and a campus.

    1. Thanks, Bryan. Alas, ahead of its time, but it pretty much reflected my own experience and background.