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Penn Humanities Forum on Origins

Topic Director: Gary Tomlinson
Annenberg Professor in the Humanities
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 itself—to 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 us—especially, perhaps, myth and religion—themselves 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 phenomena—language acts, music, art—are 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.

June, 2006
Gary Tomlinson, Topic Director
Wendy Steiner, Director, Penn Humanities Forum