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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Locating History in the Human Sciences


What arguments might lead English-language scholars to count history among the human sciences? And, more deeply, what arguments justify the view that historical knowledge is essential to human self-understanding (individually and collectively) and hence is essential to ‘being human'? This paper addresses these questions, drawing on my book, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature, but reshaping a number of points in the light of discussion at the Institute of Advanced Study in Durham, and elsewhere, in the autumn of 2008. It is a summary of reasons for thinking that the history of the human sciences is central to the human sciences. The argument uses the notion of reflexivity to find an alternative form of human self-understanding to those characteristic of philosophical anthropology, on the one hand, and evolutionary biology and neuroscience on
the other. The human phenomenon in which knowledge-forming about human beings changes who they are - the phenomenon in which the subject ‘does not stand still' - appears to require an appreciation of history as knowledge of human self-creation. I develop this point of view in the light of a general rejection of claims that any one way of understanding is ‘fundamental.' Rather, this paper argues, there are different forms of knowledge, biological, historical, sociological or whatever, for different purposes. To understand what these purposes are and how they relate at one and the same time to past and current ways of life, in all their contextual particularity, is one of the principal aims of the history of the human sciences.

Insights Paper