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Problems and visions in European research in the humanities. Gretty Mirdal University of Copenhagen and The European Science Foundation. Key note lecture delivered at the launching of The European Archipelago of the Humanistic Thematic Networks Brussels, November 17-18, 2004. Introduction.

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problems and visions in european research in the humanities

Problems and visions in European research in the humanities

Gretty Mirdal

University of Copenhagen and

The European Science Foundation

Key note lecture delivered at the launching of

The European Archipelago of the Humanistic Thematic Networks

Brussels, November 17-18, 2004


A large number of meetings have been held on the status and the future of the humanities in the ERA, but none to my knowledge, arranged by the researchers themselves

It is a pleasure and an honour to be invited to talk at this launching meeting of the Archipelago.

Generally, I am part of a “humanistic minority”; it feels good on this occasion to be in a group, where humanists constitute the majority.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

chemistry at the cnrs another world
Chemistry at the CNRS: another world

At a meeting that I attended at the Centre de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris yesterday, the different departments of the council presented a “state of the art” account and future plans . I found the presentation of the department of chemistry especially noteworthy. “Chemistry appears today as a coherent science endowed with a language of its own”, said the leader of the department. “Chemistry uses common methods, common approaches and common techniques. The barriers between subdiscplines, even the subdisciplines themselves, are disappearing”.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

the diversity of approaches in the humanities
The diversity of approaches in the Humanities

The contrast between this account, and the state of the art in our fields, the humanistic disciplines, is conspicuous:

  • we speak different languages, we have different disciplines, and subdisciplines, and even different schools of thought within the subdisciplines;
  • we use different methods and different approaches, based on different traditions;
  • we have very different types of universities and research institutes;
  • and different forms and amounts of support for carrying out humanistic research in the different European countries

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

the eu perspective
The EU-perspective

From an EU-perspective this diversity is considered to be problematic. Researchers in the humanities are criticised for having:

  • different epistemologies
  • fragmentation of subjects, principles, approaches and communities
  • increasingly strong relativism
  • difficulties in developing robust knowledge claims
  • lack of interest for “uses and users”

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

from a humanistic perspective
From a humanistic perspective

With the exception of the last item: the indifference of the humanities to the applicability of their results, which is indeed a problem, these points of criticism are strengths rather than weaknesses, seen from a humanistic perspective.

Just a few words about each of these characteristics of humanistic research, which are perceived as problematic:

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

too many epistemologies
“Too many epistemologies”

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. What do we know, how do we know, and how we acquire knowledge? It is par excellence a humanistic discipline.

It is correct that different epistemologies can lead to the creation of conflicting schools of thought. Humanistic research is however not geared to the unveiling of universal laws. In humaniora different methods and different ways of acquiring knowledge, contribute to illuminate the multiple facets and appearances of “truth”. “Many-faceted” does not mean “fragmented”.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

the lack of robust results
The lack of “robust results”

One of the distinctions of research in the humanities is the inclusion of the context in the study of phenomena. Methods which isolate objects and events from their changing contexts are not favoured in the humanities.

The dimensions of complexity and unpredictability are part of the scientific investigation. The higher the complexity of the systems under study, the less “robust” the results. The aim of humanistic research is generally understanding phenomena and clarifying probabilities rather than explaining and predicting them.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

paradigms and background books
Paradigms and “background books”

The novelist and semiologist Umberto Eco has noted that we travel and explore the world, carrying with us what he calls “background books” or encyclopedia, a system of prior and taken-for-granted knowledge. (Thomas Kuhn calls such systems for “paradigms”). How a scientist interprets the world is dependent on the paradigm which he has acquired through intensive scientific training. In Umberto Eco’s view, scientists often travel knowing in advance what they are on the verge of discovering, because past reading has told them what they are supposed to discover.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

the belief in unicorns
The belief in unicorns

Eco’s famous example is Marco Polo’s discovery of the unicorn, on his way home from China. An entire tradition of fables and myths had prepared him to regard animals with a single horn in their muzzles as unicorns. So when he stopped in Java and saw animals with a single horn in their muzzles he immediately identified them as unicorns.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

marco polo s error
Marco Polo’s Error

Did Marco Polo lie when he reported seeing unicorns? Was he mistaken? No, says Eco, he told the truth as he saw it. He could of course have reported finding a new and uncommon animal. But “rather than ... adding a new animal to the universe of the living, he has corrected the contemporary description of unicorns, so that, if they existed, they would be as he saw them and not as the legend described them”, (Eco, Kant and the Platypus, 2000).

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

contesting actual paradigms
Contesting actual paradigms

“He was unable to speak about the unknown but could only refer to what he already knew and expected to meet. He was a victim of his background books.” (Eco, Seredipities, 1998)

Good research in the humanities - just as in any other domain, is critical and innovative. The many ways of knowing and the variety of methods in the humanities might however be an advantage in this respect. The confrontation of diverging views and beliefs leads to constant questioning of “background books” and disruption of settled ways.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

mono vs trans disciplinarity
Mono- vs. trans-disciplinarity
  • Transdisciplinarity is not an end in itself. It is a means to understand an issue, to illuminate it from different angles, and to solve a problem.
  • Transdisciplinary co-operation requires researchers who are competent in their areas.
  • Funding in the advancement of research should therefore support both mono- and trans-disciplinary research.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

the humanities in transdisciplinary research
The humanities in transdisciplinary research

Societal problems in the areas of health, food, poverty and welfare, urbanisation, migration, globalisation, environment, and the like require collaboration across disciplines. However, transdisciplinarity should not mean the transformation of the humanities into helping disciplines. An invitation for post-festum participation is not a good basis for co-operation.

Transdisciplinarity is about developing common questions for investigations and joint discussions in construing the ways of approaching and solving problems.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004

european organisations supporting research in the humanities
European organisations supporting research in the humanities
  • Short presentation of the organisations funding research in the humanities
  • Presentation of the work of the Standing Committee for the Humanities (The European Science Foundation), as the only networking and funding agency which supports the humanities on an almost equal basis as the natural sciences. (see for more detail)

Gretty Mirdal, 2004


About the Archipelago

The Archipelago of the Humanistic Thematic Networks is

formed of 18 Erasmus-Socrates Thematic Networks which

deal with different areas and aspects of the Humanistic Arts

and Sciences. The "Archipelago" of Thematic Networks is

created and run by people primarily from Higher Education institutions, but also from associations and other bodies, from all European countries. The Networks are supported by the Directorate

General for Education and Culture of the European Commission.

Their primary purpose is to address, on a pan-European level,

the development of teaching, learning and research -- on a

special theme, in a specific discipline or in multi-disciplinary areas.

Gretty Mirdal, 2004