Why the Humanities Are Not Progressive

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William Hazlitt in a famous essay, "Why the Arts are not Progressive," argued that progress in the arts does not occur as it does in other fields, for in the arts recent developments do not displace earlier ones. While Becher's Phlogiston theory, published in 1667, is now "obsolete," Paradise Lost published the same year is certainly not. For Hazlitt, “What is mechanical, reducible to rule, or capable of demonstration, is progressive and admits of gradual improvement" in contradistinction to that which is "not mechanical or definite but depends on genius and feeling . . .." He further defines progressive fields as " depending on mere inquiry [sic!!] or . . . absolute demonstration." Commentators have generally taken the natural sciences as paradigmatically progressive, but Hazlitt importantly included such endeavors as biblical criticism among fields that do progress, and his reference to "mere inquiry" suggests that most academic disciplines, depending as they do on "inquiry," are progressive. Yet some disciplines, including many of those that a century ago were at the heart of “education,” do not see themselves as progressive. Valid or not, this conception creates for those disciplines a set of protocols that differ in important ways from those of progressive fields. It is the epistemic differences between these protocols that led Gerry Graff, president of the MLA, to ask: “What are the rules of the academic game; do these rules differ fundamentally [between disciplines] or is there an important area of overlap? . . . [are] the disciplines are indeed so different that the very notion of a unitary academic game is absurdly reductive” and “that there would be no point in discussing them [?]” This workshop will attempt to address those questions in relationship to “post-modern” notions of validity in the humanities and the social sciences.


Keywords: Inter-Disciplinarity, Protocols of Validity, Epistemic Morms
Stream: Anthropology, Archaeology, Cultural Studies, Humanities
Presentation Type: Workshop Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.


Mike Frank

Associate Professor of English and Cinema, Department of English, Bentley College
Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

Mike Frank, trained as a literary scholar (Ph.D. Cornell Univ., 1971), has during the past fifteen years been working in the area of cinema studies, bringing to that field the same hermeneutic and methodological questions that shaped his work in literature and literary criticism. While his specific area of expertise is the films of Alfred Hitchcock, he frames this work in relationship to such broader issues as the construction of value in the arts, the role of aesthetics in cultural critique, and the reconfiguration of traditional models of knowledge – especially what is called “humanistic” knowledge – within a regime shaped by various contemporary paradigms such as post-structuralism and post-modernism. He has taught at the University of Tel-Aviv, Williams College, the University of Chicago, and Oberlin College, and is currently Associate Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Bentley College.

Dr. Richard Garrett

Professor, Department of Philosophy, Bentley College
Waltham, Massachusetts, USA

I have published a book, DIALOGUES CONCERNING THE FOUNDATIONS OF ETHICS, and have published numerous papers in which I explain and defend The Golden Rule as the supreme principle of all morality. I have also published and presented papers concerning art and aesthetics as well as in epistemology, the philosophy of religion and metaphysics. I am currently working on a book, WISDOM QUEST. At Bentley college, I teach courses in art and aesthetics, ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. My wife is an artist, my oldest daughter is a dancer and my youngest daughter is a musician. It is not an accident that I am surrounded by artists, since I started my career as a painter, before entering into philosophy.

Ref: I08P0743