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Penn Humanities Forum on Change

Topic Director: Peter Struck
Associate Professor of Classics, Penn

In awed and majestic tones, Heraclitus portrayed the cosmos in a state of constant flux. For his student Cratylus, this vision was nothing short of terrifying. If a person cannot step twice into the same river, even during the course of a single step the river will not stay the same. Cratylus spent the last years of his life in transfixed silence, moving only a finger.

The Penn Humanities Forum anticipates a happier fate for the participants in its tenth anniversary year on Change, though not one free of controversy. Clearly, kaleidoscopes and rollercoasters are not everyone’s cup of tea, but for some at least, change is as welcome as life itself, with its discrete stages and cycles. Ideas flourish and deepen mutatis mutandis; modulation and variation give music its savor; revolution and conversion power utopias. Metamorphosis, metempsychosis, and metaphor are the stuff of wonder, and the long arcs of evolution, migration, and civilizational rise and fall determine what it is to be human.

For others, however, change suggests instability and epistemological drift. Proteus was a monster, after all, and “mutabilitie” for Spenser, as for any Platonist, summarized the pain and limitation of mortal existence. Misogyny equated Woman with flightiness and inconstancy, and hysteria with an unstable womb. Change does not sit well with champions of authenticity and purity, forcing questing heroes to leave the steady state of home for life-threatening chaos. For thinkers like Boethius, the only place for the philosopher was at the still, unmoving center of Fortune’s wheel. A millennium and a half later, Saussure taught us to bracket off diachrony if we wish to grasp structure and system.

Some have tried to avoid this either/or. By marking out periods and paradigm shifts, scholars have attempted to conceptualize change, transforming flux into algorithm. How many have sought solutions like the middle way of Paul Ricoeur, who pictured the "self" as integrating change over time and thus rendering it non-destructive? Even Darwinian evolution, so threatening and controversial, draws lines of continuity through biological history. Themes and variations entail one another. Meaningful consistency is impossible in the absence of change.

In 2008-2009, the Penn Humanities Forum invites scholars, students, and the Philadelphia public to its tenth anniversary, a Year of Change.

May, 2007
Peter Struck, Topic Director
Wendy Steiner, Director, Penn Humanities Forum