Humanities Forum on Origins
Topic Director: Gary Tomlinson
Annenberg Professor in the Humanities and
Professor of Music, Penn
Once again, the question of origins is possessing the
human sciences. In academia and beyond, lectures are given, classes taught,
and books and essays published on the question. Origins of what? The list
is long and dizzying in scope. With a click of the mouse we can order
books on the origins of language, music, art, genius, creativity, the
beautiful, religion, myth, science, modernity, the state, society, economics,
ethics, virtue, the mind, consciousness, and humanity itselfto cite
only some of the more general and humanities-oriented topics.
To speak of origins in the humanities is to speak in spirals.
In the absence of some cause-and-effect model of explanation, long since
ceded to certain precincts of science, the humanities broach origins as
ever-absent historical provocations. Many of the topics whose beginnings
fascinate usespecially, perhaps, myth and religionthemselves
arise in part from the pervasive human urge to construct narratives about
our beginnings. Do myths explain origins, then, or do origins explain
myths? Still other human phenomenalanguage acts, music, artare
primary means of conveying such narratives but communicate only through
their places in traditions that themselves gesture back toward their beginnings.
Can music and art deploy their expressive force without also pointing
to their primordial origins? Human consciousness itself might be distinguished
from non-human consciousness by its capacity to posit a past; but the
past leads inevitably back to the question of starting-points. Is there
thought that does not think origins?
To speak of origins in the humanities is also to flirt
with ambivalence. The human sciences began to assume their modern form
in a European eighteenth century obsessed with origins. By the late nineteenth
century, however, the tide had turned. At the very moment Darwinian science
posed questions of biological origins in revolutionary terms, humanists
came to find the whole topic suspect. The Linguistic Society of Paris
famously banned papers on the origins of language, and Nietzsche rejected
the quest in blanket terms: "By searching out origins, one becomes
a crab. The historian looks backward; eventually he also believes backward."
The shadow of suspicion Nietzsche cast was long. Its penumbra reached
all the way to poststructuralist philosophy, where novel conceptual models
attempted to dislodge from our musings any desire to fix origins. In the
wake of this history, what is the relation in the humanities today between
a burgeoning collection of projects searching for origins of this or that
and a philosophy skeptical of such searches?
To speak of origins in the humanities is, finally, to
speak beyond the humanities and encounter a wide range of scientific thought.
The idea of the origins of cultural phenomena points back not only to
earlier cultures but beyond culture altogether to its biological bases.
Biologists, psychologists, primatologists, paleoanthropologists and others
have in recent decades explored topics such as the origins of sexual difference
and societal gendering, of human cooperation and ethics, of technology,
of language and music, and of other universal features of human society.
Humanists, meanwhile, have answered by pursuing questions of origins in
areas once more exclusively the province of scientists, including such
hot-button issues as bioengineering, genetic determinism, and evolutionary
theory. What is the role of humanistic discourse in such areas? Where
is the meeting place of humanistic and scientific thought when history
across ever longer terms is at stake?
The Penn Humanities Forum aims to explore these and many
other questions in 2007-8. We invite interested members of the academy
and broader public to join in the exploration.
Gary Tomlinson, Topic Director
Wendy Steiner, Director, Penn Humanities Forum