Saturday, 7 July 2012

Humanities findings

I gave this talk 27 April 2012 at the conference Restating the Value of the Humanities in Contemporary Contexts at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. 

In the next 15 minutes I shall argue that humanities research is vital to address the challenges of environmental and climate change; and that we need to develop a model for translational humanities.

I believe that the humanities produce findings like all other sciences. Findings come in many forms. It is a humanities finding that children's reading abilities are positively influenced by parents reading aloud to them. The finding is a result of researchers comparing parents' practices and school children’s linguistic abilities in several countries and combining statistical figures with theories of learning.
There is always an interpretation involved in a discovery, whether of a cultural marker or a cell membrane. The archaeologist identifies changes in soil layer as a Viking stronghold only when combining knowledge of building construction, dating and typologies with theories about past societies.
It is important to recognise that the humanities may produce findings because this enables us not only to criticise the world but to help create a better one.
Some colleagues argue that the role of the humanities is not to contribute to the construction of the world, but rather that our role is to be a critical voice against the established. They will leave it to natural and engineering sciences to describe and construct the world, and will instead take the position as critics: while the natural science's role is to lay brick upon brick of the scientific building, it is the humanistic role to demolish the building. The postmodern historian Ankersmit says squarely that the historian is not committed to the truth, but solely to narrative power.
It's a radical position, which I reject. We cannot renounce the reference to reality and truth without giving up our academic position. But I do recognize that post-modern thinkers have played a positive role by demolishing positivist innocence and naivety. Not only that, postmodernist thinking is paradoxically perhaps one of the most important discoveries of the humanities of the late twentieth century. It's a thinking that creates a whole new dialogue between classic humanistic study objects on one side and constructing sciences such as computer science and engineering on the other side. For computer and film industries postmodernist thinking has proven extremely useful. Just think of the games industry and architecture. The movie The Matrix in 1999 with its combination of Baudrillard's philosophy and animation technology marks a breakthrough, and the last ten years of rapid development of narrative style and experience universes would be unthinkable without post-modern thought and its influence on everyday thinking.
In the 21st century our thinking is characterized by design rather than tradition, we are no longer so much preoccupied with how the world is, but with how we can create something entirely new and unbound. The linguistic turn was therefore one of the humanistic world's most important discoveries in the last generation. The problem is that the humanities in the postmodernist interpretation may turn entirely self-reflecting. When a researcher looks at surroundings, the researcher looks really only at his own reflection. Research may be a question only of how I choose to look at the world, how the world is reflected in me, or how can I look deeper into myself.
Instead of just being critical of this development of the humanities and harking back to the positivist epistemology, we must recognize that there is no turning back. We all acknowledged that we humans have no other tool than language to comprehend the reality that is around us. The only thing we have as researchers are sensations and perceptions, empirical data and models, whether we are researching nanoparticle or dance. In this way both science and the humanities have taken the linguistic turn.
So what about the humanities and environmental change? The future of the planet is determined by our actions, our behaviour as consumers and as citizens. All the individual choices we make sum up to a behavioural aggregate, which is bad for the planet and bad for ourselves. Global changes are known - we can measure and discuss differences of degrees of warming, weather patterns and water rise, but the big challenges are known. What we do not know is how we may change direction. How can research help us survive as a species? Enlightenment is not enough. It is extremely difficult for humans to change behaviour, even though we know the negative consequences of unchanged behaviour, just think of tobacco smoking, HIV, or CO2 load. 

The challenge is without a doubt the most complicated the human species has ever encountered in terms of human cognition. We have successfully adapted as a species to environmental change in the past when forces of nature were beyond our control. We have also successfully survived the threat of nuclear warfare when we invented the means of our own destruction. But will we be able to address the challenges of repetitive behaviour when all our incentive structures go against such change? Here is a vast agenda for the humanities as we are concerned with human motivation, ideas, thought processes and human action.

But have the humanities ever changed anything? Yes, I would maintain that the humanities have been central to articulating and determining long-term human behaviour certainly since Socrates. Consider this one example of the role of the humanities during the Cold War. The world of the 1950s and 1960s was dominated by a belief in social engineering both in democratic and communist systems. Look at this n-gram of the frequency of the concepts of social planning’ versus ‘human development’. The Cold War period was convinced of the possibilities of social planning as a result of the cognitive breakthrough for the quantitative social sciences such as sociology and economics. Still, it was beyond comparison a humanities thought product that helped to define and defend the western world during this time, the philosopher Karl Popper's 1945 study of the Open Society and his uncompromising defence of democracy at a time when totalitarian thinking was in sharp focus. Popper's philosophy had a take-up the extent of which we can hardly fathom today because it so radically came to define Western thought and behaviour during the Cold War. In a sense it is still with us today, perhaps most clearly evidenced by the United Nations COP-17 on Climate Change in Durban, South Africa, last year. The clash between the liberal thinking of western countries and the perspective of the newly affluent BRIC countries was evidence that we need a new kind of thinking, which I would call Anthropocene Humanities, to overcome the differences and create a new consensus for living with environmental change.
Anthropocene Humanities must help us understand how and why we choose to act like we do. Research in environmental history is obviously relevant in this regard, but many other humanities disciplines can make important contributions. There is a need for research on narratives and language, a need to rethink philosophical and ethical questions about the commitment of living generations to future generations, there is a need for studies of climate representations, etc. My suggestion is not to make all humanities a servant of one particular agenda but rather to encourage humanities researchers to grasp the real need for a better understanding of the human in the age of the Anthropocene.

An agenda for Anthropocene Humanities must be to enhance and intensify work on how social and cultural directionality could be articulated, democratically anchored, and implemented in the search for new technologies, medical knowledge, economic paradigms, and forms of social organization. The agenda must also embrace the fact that traditions of Western thought are repeatedly confronted with their internal limits and intellectual tipping points while non-Western traditions remain embedded and constrained within national or cultural confines that do not offer universalistic responses to environmental action. It is a big agenda, the humanities are central to it, and we need to draw on all the diversity of the human experience to meet the challenge.

Humanities Centres and Institutes such as An Foras Feasa and the Trinity Long Room Hub may contribute uniquely and decisively. At the upcoming meeting of the world-wide Consortium of Humanities Institutes and Centres in Canberra, a group of us will propose an agenda to sponsor humanities think tanks to work on these questions. We shall also propose to develop a website to communicate case studies, images, artwork, and produce a text book for undergraduate teaching of environmental humanities, sponsor events to highten awareness of Anthropocene questions amongst our colleagues, etc.

The challenge for us on the one hand is to defend disciplinary diversity, so we avoid being one-dimensional in our concept of the human - biologists have been good at defending biodiversity, we must be better to speak on behalf of the diversity of human existence. On the other hand, we must become better at articulating our findings, and we must bring our findings into play. We must come up with answers on how we can bring heritage with us into the future, how our research may benefit social cohesion, how can we share knowledge with companies and institutions, and how it helps us live with the challenges of climate and globalization.
I would argue that it is time to develop an idea of ​​a translational humanities. Translational medicine is the term for the important transformation of health research that occurred around 2000 by an emphasis on shortening the turnover time and reduce transaction costs in the research value chain. There are delays and obstacles at every level from laboratory to hospital bed, from biomedicine and psychology to the patient. This is why translational medicine is about ensuring that basic research and knowledge at each specialized level is translated to the next, and about developing relationships from research labs to hospitals, GPs and ultimately to the patients.
Such a translation dimension is not typical in the humanities. We do not have the financial overheads that can pay the transaction costs. As a humanities scholar you must be both basic scientist and entrepreneur, translator and communicator, activist and lobbyist. If you are not able to play all parts, it is unlikely that your research will have impact.
Research councils therefore need to think in ways of enhancing both the ability of the humanities to research the Anthropocene and to translate our findings. We need funding for basic research in human behaviour, management, motivation, intention and desire. And we need funding to be able to put this knowledge at stake in society.