Humanities Methods

by Laura Mandell

This reader is intended for any humanities faculty who are attempting to do rigorous interdisciplinary work and for those who are attempting to collaborate in curriculum development. The humanities have been defined by Congress to include Comparative Religion, Ethics, History, Languages & Linguistics, Literature, Philosophy, and History, Theory, and Criticism of the Arts. Each of these disciplines has over the past two centuries of their institutional history developed methods for approaching problems and understanding information. As John Guillory has argued, immersion in the "culture wars" has kept us preoccupied with advancing or refuting constructivist principles about the foundation of knowledge, a severely debilitating detraction from the important work that needs to be done in justifying the existence of the humanities curricula and expanding their sway.

This reader is designed to help faculty teach so that we can meet global needs as rightly understood. Jürgen Habermas has argued that, contrary to postmodernist beliefs, we have not failed at but only failed to complete "the project of Enlightenment" – according to his definition of it. The project is not simply the differentiation of disciplines that has promoted so much progress in each but much more: the "accumulation of specialized culture for the enrichment of everyday life." Specialists must not remain "separat[ed] from the hermeneutics of everyday communication," but must turn back with their knowledge toward the public sphere in order to promote "better understanding of the world and of the self, moral progress, the justice of institutions and even the happiness of human beings" (9).

In the culture of expertise, it is common to deny that there is a "hermeneutics of everyday communication" – that common people think at all. Critics such as Stanley Cavell have argued that the cultural studies movement, insofar as it denies that the products of popular culture deliberately engage in their own hermeneutics or interpretation of contemporary issues, has done no better. At the moment, even celebratory analyses of cultural artifacts express disdain for their producers by theoretically denying them conscious agency, as in analyses inspired by Foucault. But work by experts on information architecture such as Edward Tufte who deeply respect the intellectual power displayed by non-academic, non-specializing public activity must give us pause. It is easy for humanities scholars to accept Tufte’s belief that there is no such thing as undigested information, that every presentation of it (even those that appear to be mere dumps of information) reveals or hides truth: we are adept at analyzing the impact of form on content. It is less easy for us in our postmodern moment to accept that truth design is often a deliberate and conscious enterprise.

There are pressing ethical reasons for returning from postmodern notions of over-determination to re-examine what in fact is within conscious control of human agents. What Tufte has shown in relation to the shuttle Columbia is true throughout our world: people are struggling to organize information so that it reveals truth and are sometimes failing with catastrophic results. People want and need to know creative ways of thinking that will produce effective solutions to problems and deep understanding of issues. If we as experts do not bring to them our knowledge about information architecture and the art of interpretation, they will fall back on mechanical and cognitively impoverished methods for designing truth such as Microsoft PowerPoint (Tufte).

To state Tufte’s argument more powerfully and tendentiously than he ever would, Power Point reduces our language to Lager jargon as described by Primo Levi, partly by eliminating the need for syntax. Syntax in written language can be seen as a transcultural information architecture – a fact that digital and code poets such as Dan Waber and Talan Memmott are making eminently clear. But, like any other architecture, there are truths it hides and reveals, and humanists have spent a long time sounding it for both. Just as work in visual studies by film and art critics is essential to fully understanding the implications of any visual display, so too work by humanities scholars is crucial to understanding the sentence. We are most adept at analyzing the hidden meanings in any presentation of information.

No longer justifiable as a scene for cultivating humane feelings, the humanities classroom can impart hermeneutic skills essential to finding one’s place in global information flow. The political need for bringing the fruit of disciplinary understanding into lay terms for an educated public, whether for those who wish to engage in interdisciplinary work or to approach humanities disciplines for the first time, is pressing: Lithuanian critic Almantas Samalavicius sees "creating conditions for dialogues between [humanities] disciplines as well as for exchange between [scientific and humanities] cultures" as crucial for the development of democratic society (51).

Unlike the sentence or PowerPoint which can be used by obtaining certain skills seemingly independent of content, the modes of visual and textual information design and analysis – humanities methods – require not just technical skill but positive knowledge. This reader thus necessarily introduces the faculty and students who use it to classics in the fields of literary theory, philosophy, comparative religion, history, language and film study, up through postmodern re-evaluations of such texts, the latter (no matter its own intention to be "post" rather than better) marking progress in "the project of modernity" (Habermas 8).

I have designed this reader for use by humanities faculty who are meeting together engaged in discussions about curriculum redesign and revitalization. But it is also for those who wish to do more rigorous interdisciplinary thinking as well as those who want to be introduced to the methods of thinking distinctive of individual humanities disciplines. The chapters on Rhetorical Analysis and Philosophical Method, for instance, can be usefully read by physicists who wish to teach a seminar on the ideas of physics by revisiting classical texts in their field. That is, I hope people will use it for a (paradoxically but usefully) more disciplined approach to interdisciplinary study. With corporations taking up instruction in knowledge work in ever more specialized ways, the university as a whole, and the humanities in particular, can serve as the place in which specialist and a public desirous to be broadly educated meet together, discussing in clear, comprehensible language, how to discover meanings generated by media and form.

Too many texts in the humanities comparable to our reader discuss questions pertinent to information design at a level of theoretical complexity that makes them inaccessible to the educated non-specialist. Two examples are The Truth about the Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern World, ed. Walter Truett Anderson (Penguin Putnam 1995) and Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, eds. Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld, David Gray Carlson (Routledge, 1992). Others focus too narrowly on polemic, being mere salvos in the culture wars. Two examples are What’s Happened to the Humanities? ed. Alvin Kernan (Princeton UP, 1997) and Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Mark Edmundson (Penguin 1993). Finally, this reader is not a how-to manual for curriculum (re)design, such as Alive at the Core: Exemplary Approaches to General Education in the Humanities, ed. Michael Nelson, et. al. (Jossey Bass 2000): it provides rather excerpts from core texts on humanities methods that can be used for designing not just general humanities courses but courses that are genuinely (i.e., rigorously) interdisciplinary. One text comparable to this reader is Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time : A Reader, edited by Walter Jost and Michael J. Hyde (Yale University Press, 1997). This reader will include methods beyond those two, however, and will not attempt to theorize interrelations between two specific methods, though I will include texts in our reader indicating what is distinctive about humanities methods as a whole. Shortly, each section will contain an introduction indicating the significance of each text in relation to its field and highlighting the sets of skills it imparts, as well as their justification.

[Under construction: texts will be put up to make this an electronic reader.]

I. An Overview: Hermeneutics as what defines the Humanities (Theory)

    1. A. Aristotle, Rhetoric / Poetics / Nicomachean Ethics
    2. B. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “An Essay on Method”
    3. C. Hans-Georg Gadamer, from Truth and Method
    4. D. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, from Sense and Nonsense
    5. E. Paul Ricouer, from Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning
    6. from Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation
    7. F. Jürgen Habermas, “Hermeneutic and Analytic Philosophy. Two Complementary Versions of the Linguistic Turn?”

II. Hermeneutics (Practice)

    1. A. René Wellek & Austin Warren, from Theory of Literature
    2. B. Walter Ong, from Interfaces of the Word
    3. C. Clifford Geertz, from Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali

III. Interpreting Culture (History, Literature)

    1. A. Clifford Geertz, from Interpreting Culture
    2. B. Robert Darnton, from The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History
    3. C. Hortense Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe; An American Grammar Book”
    4. D. Paul Gilroy, from The Black Atlantic

IV. Poetic Forms of Thought (Literature)

    1. A. Aristotle, from Poetics
    2. B. Tzvetan Todorov, from Poetics
    3. C. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Symbol and Allegory” (from The Statesman’s Manual)
    4. D. Angus Fletcher, from Allegory

V. Historical Forms of Thought (History, Philosophy)

    1. A. Wilhelm Dilthey, “The Understanding of Other Persons and Their Life Expressions” (from Collected Writings)
    2. B. William Dray, “‘Explaining What’ in History”
    3. C. R. G. Collingwood, “History as a Re-enactment of Past Experience,” “On the A-Priori of History” (from The Idea of History)
    4. D. Dominick Lacapra, from History and Memory after Auschwitz
    5. E. Joan Wallach Scott, “Experience”
    6. F. Natalie Zemon Davis, Joan Wallach Scott, “A New Kind of History”
    7. G. bell hooks, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance”
    8. H. Roy Rosenzweig, from Everyone a Historian

VI. Mimesis (Classics, Philosophy)

    1. A. Plato, from Parmenides 130B–135C
    2. B. Aristotle, from Poetics
    3. C. Karl R. Popper, “Prediction and Prophecy in the Social Sciences”
    4. D. Eric Auerbach, from Mimesis
    5. E. Richard Rorty, from Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature

VII. Rhetorical Analysis (Literature)

    1. A. Aristotle, from Rhetoric
    2. B. Kenneth Burke, from A Grammar of Motives
    3. C. J. L. Austin, from How to Do Things With Words
    4. D. H. P. Grice, from Studies in the Way of Words
    5. E. George Lakoff, Mark Johnson, from Metaphors We Live By
    6. F. Paul Ricouer, from The Rule of Metaphor

VIII. Narrative Shape (Literature, History)

    1. A. Gérard Genette, from Narrative Discourse
    2. B. Hayden White, from The Content of the Form, including “The Value of Narrativity”
    3. C. Roy Schafer, “Narration in the Psychoanalytic Dialogue”
    4. D. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, from The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life

IX. Dialectics (Philosophy)

    1. A. Classical Dialectics: excerpts from Aristotle and Plato
    2. B. G. W. F. Hegel, from The Science of Logic
    3. C. Friedrich Schleiermacher, from Dialectic; or, the Art of Doing Philosophy
    4. D. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, from The German Ideology
    5. E. Bertrand Russell, “Dialectical Materialsm,” from Freedom and Organization
    6. F. Theodor Adorno, from Negative Dialectics

X. Dialogue (Philosophy, Literature)

    1. A. Plato, from Phaedrus
    2. B. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience
    3. C. Mikhail Bakhtin, from The Dialogic Imagination
    4. D. Maurice Friedman, from Dialogue and Human Image

XI. Philology – Etymology, Connotation, Culture

    1. A. Martin Heidegger, Part 1, Lecture 1 and Part II, Lectures 2 and 3, from What is Called Thinking?
    2. B. Ludwig Wittgenstein, from Culture and Society
    3. C. Iurii Lotman, et. al., from The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History
    4. D. Roland Barthes, from S/Z
    5. E. Henry Louis Gates, "The Blackness of Blackness: A Critique on the Sign and the Signifying Monkey"

XII. Visual Analysis (Film Studies)

    1. A. Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” from Illuminations
    2. B. Sergei Eisenstein, from Film Form
    3. C. André Bazin, from What is Cinema?
    4. D. Kaja Silverman, from The Subject of Semiotics
    5. E. David Bordwell, from Making Meaning
    6. F. Judith Mayne, from Framed: Lesbians, Feminists, and Media Culture

XIII. Translation (Languages)

    1. A. Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” from Illuminations
    2. B. W. V. O. Quine, on Translation, from Word and Object
    3. C. Umberto Eco, from Experiences in Translation

XIV. Exegesis (Literature, Comparative Religion)

    1. A. Dante Alighieri, from The Letters of Dante
    2. B. Jacob Neusner, from From Literature to Theology in Formative Judaism
    3. C. Fredric Jameson, “On Interpretation: Literature as a Socially Symbolic Act,” from The Political Unconscious
    4. D. Michael Dummett, “The Impact of Scriptural Studies on the Content of Catholic Belief”
    5. E. Elaine Pagels, “What Became of God the Mother?”

XV. The Essay (Literature, Philosophy)

    1. A. Michel de Montaigne, “Of Books,” “A Custom of the Island of Cea,” “Of Vanity”
    2. B. Virginia Woolf, from A Writer’s Diary
    3. C. Theodor Adorno, “The Essay as Form”

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