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Institute of Advanced Study

IAS Fellow's Seminar

Fellow: Mikhail Epstein

Chair: Colin Bain

Title: On the Future of the Humanities

The reaction I often hear on the title of my work in progress is surprise: "Do you really believe that the humanities have the future?" I do believe in the future of the humanities, yet in order to survive the current crisis they need not to limit themselves to scholarship but to create their own ways to change what they study, to change the human world.

The creative aspect of the humanities has not yet found its recognition in the established classification and methodology of scientific disciplines. We know that technology serves as the practical extension ("application") of the natural sciences, and politics as the extension of the social sciences. Both technology and politics are designed to transform what their respective disciplines study objectively. Yet what is the constructive enhancement of the humanities? These sequences might be expressed in the following way:

* Nature - natural sciences - technology - transformation of nature
* Society - social sciences - politics - transformation of society
* Culture - human sciences - ? - transformation of culture

I argue that we need a practical branch of the humanities which functions similarly to technology and politics, but is specific to the cultural domain. When offering a certain theory, we need to ask ourselves if it has the power to inaugurate a new cultural practice, an artistic movement, a disciplinary field, a new institution, a life style, or an intellectual community.


1. In the last 40 years, the number of students majoring in the humanities (philosophy, language, history, religion, cultural studies, literary and art theory and criticism) declined by more than half, from 17% to 8%, according to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Do you think that this tendency can be reversed? By which means?

2. Do the humanities have to adapt to the needs of contemporary society and to the pace of informational and technological age? What steps are to be taken? Or should the humanities remain the haven of pure academic scholarship?

3. How does your professional field interact with the humanities? Do you think these interactions can be enhanced in the future and in which ways? Which impact can your discipline have on the humanities and how can it be influenced by them? If you are a humanist yourself, how does your field interact with other disciplines in this area?

4. What is the connection between theoretical research and practical applications in your discipline and how this relationship between discoveries and inventions can be projected on the humanities?

5. How do you imagine the role of the humanities in academia and in society by the middle of the 21st Century?