Future Symposia

Basic Concepts of Humanistic Inquiry
A Series of Symposia organized by
Duke & Northwestern University

This proposal is for a series of symposia, each dedicated to exploring a single key concept of Humanistic inquiry. Under the current proposal, the first of these symposia will take place in the Fall of 2013. At each of these events, some five or six internationally distinguished scholars would present original, full‐length papers on the specific concept that is to be the focus of a symposium. Speakers will likely come from a variety of disciplines (philosophy, literature, theology, intellectual history, etc.). The objective will be to reexamine a specific concept with regard to its origins, historical evolution, internal tensions, and its significance for humanistic inquiry today.

What prompts this initiative right now is a series of shifts and trends within the Humanities, which has left this broad configuration of disciplines notably unsettled. Following the advent of ʺtheoryʺ in North America during the 1960s, and intensified by the considerable diversification of theoretical approaches and languages ever since, the Humanities have shown a growing propensity to invoke or pragmatically ʺdeployʺ theoretical models on an ad‐hoc basis, frequently doing so with little awareness of the deeper conceptual stakes, intellectual traditions, and implications associated with the terms thus mobilized. In what may well be a further consequence of their often haphazard introduction and uncritical embrace, the languages and idioms of theory for the last two decades or so have taken on an increasingly ephemeral cast. Although each new theoretical paradigm that arrives on the scene promises implicitly to organize the landscape of humanistic inquiry in conclusive, even authoritative ways, it is rapidly absorbed into that increasingly diffuse landscape, further heightening the sense of disorientation. Oddly enough, then, the conspicuous surge to prominence and rapidly shifting nomenclature of what used to go by the name of ʺTheoryʺ appears to have undermined, more than anything else, the conceptual integrity and institutional relevance of that very idea itself.

While a variety of approaches and a diverse spectrum of pursuits and methods may well be taken as a sign of intellectual health, we may have reached a point of
diminishing returns—as evidenced by the palpable struggle of subfields and entire disciplines within the Humanities to articulate a coherent conception of their object of inquiry and, hence, to make an effective case for their continued institutional and pedagogical relevance. A basic operative vocabulary, and a robust understanding of how specific terms (e.g, judgment, action, form, normativity, tradition, beauty) came to acquire their central role within Humanistic inquiry—and how they remain indispensable to that project even now—can arguably no longer be taken for granted. The main risk, and one that todayʹs Humanities would ignore at their own peril, thus involves the slippage from what Brad S. Gregory has called our intellectual hyper‐pluralism into a latter‐day Nominalism that no longer takes the trouble to ensure the internal coherence and potential commensurability of its various fields of inquiry, methodologies, and guiding conceptions.

To retrace the evolution and articulate the enduring significance of certain key concepts of humanistic inquiry seems particularly warranted at a point when the youngest cohort of scholars eager to establish themselves in various Humanistic disciplines often seem to lack adequate awareness of the intricacy and deep historical evolution of basic concepts on which they nonetheless continue to rely in their own inquiry. Hence, following each of the projected symposia, contributors will be asked to revise and finalize their research papers and to submit them for inclusion in a published volume. Envisioned here is a series of short books (~130 pages in print) that should be marketed broadly as paperback volumes and, perhaps, also as licensed digital publications. A (very preliminary) title for this series might be Key Concepts of Humanistic Inquiry.

As regards the work to be solicited for these symposia, we aim to encourage contributors to address themselves to a broad audience of scholars currently working within some particular field of humanistic inquiry or poised to establish themselves in one of its disciplines. While authors are strongly encouraged to make distinctive arguments, we would also ask that they provide a broader contextual picture for the specific arguments they wish to advance. A useful model for how to frame these opening sections of individual papers might be the kind of expository writing found in the recent, multi‐volume project Aesthetische Grundbegriffe (ed. Karlheinz Barck – Stuttgart: Metzler, 2000).


Form / Image (Fall 2014)
Action (Spring 2015)
Value / Normativity (Fall 2015)
Beauty (Spring 2016)
Tradition (Fall 2016)