Three Challenges for Comparative Global Humanities

Presented by: Ren Bods

When: 8:15 – 9:15 am Section 1: Humanities Concepts and Disciplines; Panel 1, 1C

Abstract: While there are academic fields like comparative literature, comparative linguistics and comparative history, there is no field called “comparative humanities”. What would such a field entail, and why is it important? Similar to its counterparts, we could maintain that comparative humanities compares humanities disciplines across temporal and geographic boundaries, hence the more precise term “comparative global humanities”. During the last decade there has been a blossoming interest in comparing different humanities disciplines across time and space: a new conference series The Making of the Humanities was established in 2008, followed by a journal and an international society.1 We have also seen the appearance of several edited books and monographs on the topic. Yet only very few studies go into the methodological problems of comparing humanities disciplines in different temporal and cultural contexts.

In my paper, I will discuss three problems that I believe to be constitutive for Comparative Global Humanities as a field. Each of these three problems corresponds to one of its constituent words, which I shall discuss in reverse order: humanities, global and comparative respectively. While there are no general solutions to these problems, we can try to formulate motivated choices.

1. Humanities: the problem of demarcation.Can we come up with a definition of the humanities that holds across time and place? If not, is there a set of disciplines that constitutes the humanities? And should the humanities be characterized by their object or rather by their method? I will argue for an inclusive definition of the humanities being the disciplines that use methods that originate in the study of the expressions of the human mind. Such a definition includes subdisciplines from the social sciences that use humanistic methods, such as historical sociology, social anthropology and cultural psychology. In this way, the humanities are not limited to a small range of core-disciplines but include disciplines and subdisciplines where methods are used that originate in the study of the expressions of the human mind, such as the hermeneutic, the grammatical and the source-critical method.

2. Global: the problem of ethnocentrism. Can we study the humanities from different centers in the world on a par? And how can we study the humanities from the perspective of a center itself, rather than starting from an ethnocentric viewpoint? I will argue for a polycentric perspective that recognizes that the humanities are not an exclusively western affair. The terms humanities and studia humanitatis may be European, but the study of the expressions of the human mind are found everywhere in the world, and from antiquity onwards–be it the study of literature, the study of art or the study of languages. Moreover, the hermeneutic, grammatical and source-critical methods have been invented independently in different parts of the world–from India, China to Greece.

3. Comparative: the problem of incommensurability. How can we compare humanities concepts from different cultures and periods? What if a humanities concept exists in one culture or period but not in the other one? Even within the same culture: what if a concept has changed its meaning overtime? For example, the term “art” meant something entirely different before and after the renaissance in Europe. This can still be seen in the concept of “liberal arts” which was derived from the Latin artes liberales, when the arts had nothing to do with fine arts. Another example: can the Classical Chinese concept of bian be compared with disputatio in Latin, or are they incommensurable? It may indeed be that terms or concepts are so different that any comparison gets muddled by confusions about their meanings and contexts. Yet I will argue that there are family resemblances of concepts that are commensurable and therefore comparable. We should not restrict ourselves to the intra-cultural comparison of humanities concepts but allow for intercultural comparison as well. This will offer an understanding of the similarities and differences between the humanities across time and space.

1. (See