Why the Humanities Are Not Progressive
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
Associate Professor of English and Cinema, Department of English, Bentley College
Dr. Richard Garrett
Professor, Department of Philosophy, Bentley College