In the Fall of 2011, the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS), along with the Heyman Center for the Humanities, launched an initiative called “Rethinking the Human Sciences.” In its inaugural year, the “Rethinking the Human Sciences” program has been the home for a seminar series, a major interdisciplinary conference, and a new undergraduate major, Medicine, Literature and Society, at ICLS.

Rethinking The Human Sciences This two pronged – intellectual and curricular – initiative grew out of a collective reflection among the Institute’s multiverse faculty over the situation of disciplinary knowledge and humanities pedagogy in today’s global university. The generally cultivated skepticism about the contemporary pertinence of humanities-based education to current problems in social achievement and capacity to compete in a global sphere energized the ranks of the Institute to seek new venues of re-conceptualizing and re-articulating the human sciences. No doubt, the particular term is not of common usage in the Anglophone tradition and, moreover, it may be said to belong to another historical era. (Indeed, the historical legacy of the name “the human sciences” would very much be part of the process of rethinking in what sense this name may lend itself to domains of inquiry and pedagogy in our own time.) But perhaps precisely because of this distant significance, the term “human sciences” may be more usefully mobilized in order to confront the wide-spread assumptions as to the dead-end of the humanities.

More specifically, the challenge that emerged in plain view was to rethink the humanities in broader fashion in order to address, not merely modes of learning that characterize the social sciences (historical methodologies, sociological and geopolitical conceptualizations, or anthropological figurations of culture), which has been the work of the Institute since the outset, but increasing tendencies in all disciplines (including the life sciences) that problematize the permutations and boundaries of the human. This covers an enormous range of specific scholarship that includes meta-empirical discussions in neuroscience and cognitive science; the complex intersection of biotechnology, biopolitics, and bioethics; the geopolitical dimensions of epidemiology, public health, human rights and humanitarianism; the international legal apparatus for transitional justice and determining crimes against humanity; the media and imaging technologies of human bodies; the emergent fields of ecology and ecocriticism, posthumanism and animality; and a great deal more.

In the background of these specific and sometimes highly specialized discourses stands a broad network of modes of knowledge that converge around the question of how to configure the category “human” and all its subsidiary or consequential domains. In seeking to critically revivify the discourse of the human sciences, this initiative sees itself as a springboard for a cross-departmental collaboration on how to counter the increasingly impoverished discussion that pits the humanities against the sciences in a dead-end configuration of unquestioned and incommensurable terms. In this collaborative effort, in both research and pedagogical work, we hope to converge with philosophical arguments and inquiries made by medical or legal professionals, theoretical scientists, or public health activists, who insist that the profound and incisive questions concerning the meaning of human life in our world, now and in the future, cannot be properly posed without the thinking tools and framing devices that characterize humanities-based education.

The investigation of these questions demands to be conducted as a comparatist and interdisciplinary conversation amidst several domains: history, literary studies, social and political sciences, health and life sciences, cognitive science, law, economics, anthropology, gender studies, media and technology studies, education, ecology, geography, human rights. Moreover, this conversation cannot but be geographically wide open and historically precise, international in scope and yet focused on the particularities of location.

Our purpose in initiating this conversation is both epistemological and practical, political and pedagogical. We understand this sort of inquiry to be necessarily plural and collaborative, and also that this conversation cannot be conducted once and for all. For this reason, we envision the “Rethinking the Human Sciences” initiative to be the anchor of ongoing activity that may manifest itself in all kinds of other ways on campus, but eventually perhaps in a series of like meetings to take place abroad, perhaps in relation to Columbia’s new Global Centers or in collaboration with other international institutions. Moreover, the magnitude of this task and its demands for plural and collaborative research open the way for us to initiate a variety of contiguous projects, whether smaller workshops, new curricular developments, collaborative publications, communication networks, and so on.

Download audio from past lectures in the Rethinking the Human Sciences series on iTunesU.