II National Symposium

“The Human Sciences in the Time of Disciplinary Decadence”

10-12 February 2011

Balvant Parekh Centre for General Semantics and Other Human Sciences, in collaboration with Forum on Contemporary Theory, organized a three day symposium on “The Human Sciences in the Time of Disciplinary Decadence” during 10-12 February 2011. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, the rock star of postcolonial studies, who was invited to deliver the third Balvant Parekh distinguished lecture kindly consented to preside over the symposium. Several scholars from different parts of India and one from Canada attended the symposium and presented papers.

During the inauguration of the symposium

The papers covered a wide range spanning from a macro understanding of humanities and its relationship with the natural sciences to the specifics of disciplines such as history, genres such as poetry and categories such as Indian Literature. The 19th century’s separation of humanities and physical sciences has made the debate of one or the other as superior in its quest to understand the human being an old one now. Wilhelm Dilthey separated the humanities from the physical sciences on the basis of the subject matter calling the former discipline “the spiritual sciences” or “the human sciences.” The neo-Kantian Heinrich Rickert explained that the more important difference lay in the methodology rather than mere subject matter. He described the human sciences as “idiographic,” in the sense that they seek to contextualize the particular unlike the physical and natural sciences that endeavour to establish general laws.

Anupam Yadav’s paper inserts the category of philosophical hermeneutics into such a methodological debate between the natural-physical sciences and human sciences. Although the verstehen school, that emphasized interpretive understanding, tries to grant a methodologically independent status to human sciences, Yadav opines that strong positivistic strains remain that make it seem like the human sciences aspire to the level of the positive sciences in this pursuit. Using insights from Kuhn and Popper, the paper argues that even scientific inquiry embodies interpretive contents. The intersection of human sciences and the natural-physical sciences on the existential-ontological plane enables us to assert the role of hermeneutics as going beyond mere methodology. Untangling the human sciences from the positivistic noose of the physical sciences allows us to concede their interpretive, reflective nature. Yadav’s favouring of the term “man” throughout the paper and in the title (The Human Sciences: The Science of Man) over “human” inflects the paper with a masculinist bias that obfuscates years of scholarly work by feminists that seeks to recuperate the female from the exclusionary term, “man.”


On very similar lines, Koshy Tharakan’s paper also deals with the philosophical background to the theme of the symposium. However, he takes the matter ahead by bringing in Max Weber and Alfred Schutz, who sought to resolve the impasse between physical sciences and human sciences. Weber’s notion of “subjective interpretation” was contested by logical positivists like Hempel and Nagel. Schutz’s phenomenological inputs into the debate also fall short because he does not take into consideration lived experience as an epistemological tool in human sciences. Therefore, it is Tharakan’s contention that Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology may be more useful in order to recuperate the category of “lived experiences” of the subject, the understanding of which is the goal of human sciences.

Further linking the humanities to natural sciences through contemporary categories of technology and virtuality, Aniket Jaaware’s presentation attempted a critical description of what is loosely called ‘technology’ and virtuality and related them to physics and mathematics. In the 21st century, the production of energy is mostly limited to the production of electric energy, making it viable to confuse organic and non-organic energy. Physics as a material science is subject to the temporality of predictability whereas the possibilities in research in humanities may be better reflected upon by a different understanding of what he terms “non-ambulent temporality.” Continuing the interest in science, Bharat Chattoo spoke about what it would mean to be human from a genomics perspective. He wondered if there is a purpose to the ways of the behaviour of genes. He explained by using the example of FOXP2 (Forkhead box protein), also known as the language gene because mutations of this gene can cause severe speech and language disorders. Since speech acquisition is also related to a child’s socialization process, Chattoo believes that humanities and social sciences could have a different perspective on this which could help scientists understand such phenomena more holistically. 

Having established the humanities as a reflective, speculative and analytical discipline through insights from Yadav’s and Tharakan’s paper, we need to historicize and contextualize the humanities as a discipline. D. Venkat Rao performs this task in his presentation on critical humanities which was part of a larger project on mnemocultures of India . He framed some broad questions in the context of teaching and research in India : What are the agendas of the humanities in their embedded contexts of post-colonial cultures? Who is the subject/object of the humanities that we are to address in our institutionalized discourses? Does the institutionalized space of the university located as it is in India as necessarily in a postcolonial arena regard itself as capable of reflecting on singular human creations, which is the domain of the humanities? In Rao’s opinion, “the humanities are yet to address such questions at an institutional level in our contexts.”

The concern with the space of the university and pedagogy remained prominent in the symposium. Nandana Dutta raised some important issues in her paper against the backdrop of the political disturbances in the North Eastern parts of India one of which was: How does an area studies program negotiate the “other”? She used American studies to explore the ways in which it appropriates the other for the benefit of the discipline. American studies which began as solidly nationalist, began to slowly but surely incorporate the others. She co-opts the exemplary figure of the migrant to foreground questions of multiculturalism. Citing Whitman and Emerson, Dutta said that a thorough understanding of the subject position of the learner is important. Responding to the paper, Spivak reminded us that American studies as it was popularized outside the USA was quite clearly a political act and that American studies as an example of area studies was flawed.

Spivak commenting on presentations

The presence of a large number of scholars from the departments of English led to an increased focus on literature which is a major discipline among the humanities. Manju Jaidka’s paper on world literature began with the lament about the so-called neglect of the literary text per se fuelled by the proliferation of theory. In the spirit of New Criticism, Jaidka accords literature with a moral purpose. By a sleight of hand, she equates the idea of cosmopolitanism that Kwame Anthony Appiah promotes in his Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers with the ancient Indian ideal of Vasudhaiva Kuttumbakam (loose translation could be: the world is one family). To make her point, she selects a motley group of texts such as Panchatantra and the Kathasaritsagar, the Iliad the Odyssey, Canterbury Tales and Decameron to demonstrate her thesis that literatures across time, place, cultures and societies have in common those traits that foster unity. During the discussion after the paper, it emerged that such an understanding of literature naively negates the differences – historical, linguistic, political, social, economic and cultural – that contribute to the production of literary texts. Also, that theory is extremely empowering in the way that it has enhanced our appreciation of the literary text rather than marginalizing it. 

From Jaidka’s all-encompassing category of world literature, Prof. E V Ramakrishnan’s paper engages with a national category such as Indian literature. Taking leads from Foucault, Dipesh Chakraborty and Edward Said, his paper titled, “Disciplining India: “Provincializing ‘Indian Literature’” discussed the problematic of locating the category of ‘Indian literature’ in the context of humanities. The legacy of Orientalism according to him has complicated the question of defining ‘Indian Literature’. The immense creative output from the hitherto marginalized such as women, Dalits and tribals in the last three decades has further made the questions of ‘the literary’ and interdisciplinarity fraught ones. Literary criticism is no longer an adequate paradigm to address the issue of the ‘literary’ as the latter has become an ideologically loaded term. Ramakrishnan poses a pertinent question: Why are the social sciences unable to accommodate the Dalit experience when literature is full of Dalit narratives? Weaving themes such as ‘experience’, ‘orality’, ‘literacy’, ‘humanism’ and ‘humanities,’ into his study, Ramakrishnan suggests that the inability to accommodate lived experience is perhaps a marker of the failure of theory. This paper shares Koshy’s concerns with lived experience as a crucial point of entry into the study of humanities. Unlike Jaidka’s paper which dismissed theory uncritically, Ramakrishnan, engages with theory not to dismiss it but to reveal certain lacunae. While appreciating the idea of “critical regionalism” as propounded by Ramakrishnan, Spivak nevertheless made it clear that we need to remember that European colonialism was not the first to mistreat or oppress subalterns.

            Within the broader rubric of disciplinary decadence, which according to Gayatri Spivak was too moral a description, Sanjay Mukherjee’s paper focused on the dwindling interest in a specific genre, viz. poetry. He traced the trajectory of attitudes to poetry and identified only two periods in English literary history when poetry flowered i.e. the Romantic period and at the height of New Criticism. He assigns historical reasons for both – the Romantics favoured poetry because they saw revolutionary potential in it and the new critics perceived poetry as a mode of making sense of the trauma of the Great War. In contemporary times, along with Harold Bloom and Terry Eagleton, Mukherjee rues the near extinction of poetry. 

However, other disciplines in social sciences have discovered the value of literature in throwing light on the socio-economic and political scenario of a particular period in history. This has led to innovative teaching methods in the classroom that views literature as a pedagogic asset. In a rather simplistic attempt to interconnect disciplines, Suhashini Dutta-Sandhu in her paper tried to demonstrate how literature can be an effective epistemological tool for understanding politics. Beginning with the premise that literature helps in understanding politics, she sought to reveal the subtle and complex relationships between art and politics, aesthetics and ethics through an analysis of randomly selected novels. In order to do so, she had to necessarily study the linkages between power, gender, politics and literature. Spivak, during the discussion, cautioned us about the perils of using literature as evidence of socio-political-economic-cultural conditions.

If literature is one signifying system, cinema is another, the former being a verbal narrative and the latter a visual one. This rather obvious fact is stated here to examine the nature of the two kinds of narrative. What happens when a filmmaker decides to appropriate a slice of history as the content of his film for which s/he may have to refer to verbal narratives such as novels etc? Anirudh Deshpande’s presentation dealt with the vexed issue of cinema as an effectual historical source in this media saturated world. Although beginning with a postmodernist understanding of history as narrative, the paper still differentiates between literary narratives that are born from imagination and historical narratives from verifiable sources. The paper makes a case for expanding the scope of history by analyzing the visual expressions of memory. In this context, Deshpande considers cinema as a viable historical source in the pre-literate, literate and post-literate Indian society. While on the one hand, the paper celebrates such postmodernist notions of history and historiography, it also rues the fact of its decadence in institutional spaces such as the University.

Informal conversations in the library


Bini B S in her presentation also reflected upon the politics of historiography by grounding it in the theories of Hayden White, Foucault and Ricoeur. To posit history as a human science would give rise to problems in conceptualizing subjectivity and agency. In her opinion, one of the ways of saving history from disciplinary decadence is to pay attention to the philosophical, political and cultural implications of the textuality of history. She illustrated her point using certain marginalized events in the mainstream historiography of Kerala such as the Kallu Mala (Stone Necklace) movement, Mookkuthi Samaram (Nose stud agitation) and Channar Revolt (Upper cloth movement).


A presentation during the symposium

            The symposium ended with some optimistic notes struck on the future of humanities. Kanungo’s paper attempted to critique the idea of decadence, which according to him was too strong a word to describe disciplines. Discursive knowledges have in academia grown out of bounds and it is such diversification that sustains a university which unfortunately has become a corporation that usually has a utilitarian approach to knowledge. Thus it is not any inherent flaw in the humanities as such but corporatization that needs to be resisted. The valorization of technology may seem to be pushing the humanities to the margins in our present times. Nevertheless C N Ajit reassuringly proposed that technological developments today seek to incorporate human characteristics more rigorously than ever before. This has triggered an interest in the study of the human both at the individual and societal levels. For instance, the humanities specialists were needed for computer mediated social networking. He exemplified his thesis with some recent developments like the attempt at conversion of human thought into machine input or machine perception of odour and the consequent need to study the characteristics of life. He concludes that there is no escaping the fact that technology and the humanities share a symbiotic relationship.

                                                                                                                        Gita Viswanath

Independent researcher and short-film maker, Baroda