A New History of the Humanities
The search for principles and patterns from antiquity to the present
Many histories of science have been written, but until Rens Bod came along no one had thought of writing a history of the humanities. We already have historical studies of musicology, logic, art history, linguistics and historiography; Bod pulls all these fields together, with many more, in a single coherent account.
Bod’s book explores largely uncharted territory. He has taken as his main theme the way scholars throughout the ages and in all advanced civilizations have sought to identify patterns. What rules can we apply if we wish to determine whether a tale about the past is really trust- worthy? By what criteria are we to distinguish consonant from dissonant musical intervals? What rules jointly describe all possible grammatical sentences in Sanskrit? How can modern digital methods enhance pattern-seeking in the humanities?
As the book unfolds, we discover that, taken as a whole, the patterns so assiduously sought through the ages reveal certain patterns themselves. Can we justifiably speak of ‘progress’ in the humanities? Yes, Bod argues in the wake of Thomas S. Kuhn, we can, in the sense of an increasing capacity displayed by humanist scholars for solving specific problems. Bod also insists throughout the book that the hallowed opposition between the sciences (mathematical, experimental, dominated by universal laws) and the humanities (allegedly concerned with unique events and hermeneutic methods) is simply a mistake, born of a myopic failure to appreciate the pattern-seeking that lies at the heart of his own inquiry.
Despite the vast scope of his book, Bod’s arguments and findings are not at all superficial and shallow, and they are meticulously documented; he is good, too, at challenging current thinking. His easy, lively style makes the book accessible to the general reader.
A History of the Humanities amounts to a persuasive plea to give Panini, Valla, Bopp, and countless other often overlooked intellectual giants their rightful place next to the Galileos, Newtons and Einsteins we celebrate so much more often.
- A book full of discoveries by humanities scholars, many of which have also promoted the growth of scientific knowledge.
- A bold undertaking, running counter to the extreme specialization that is currently the norm in the academic world.
- Some impressive demythologizing goes on in this pioneering historical account.