Q&A with Aberdeen Magazine, 2006

Q&A with Aberdeen Magazine, 2006

Questions by Leonard Forman; answers by Professor Christopher Fynsk

Modern thought and its provenance

The phrase “modern thought” has no special provenance, to my knowledge, but is used widely to denote work that has been important for contemporary cross-disciplinary theoretical research. This could be work of roughly the last two centuries that comes from literature (Mallarmé or Hölderlin, for example), philosophy (Hegel or Wittgenstein), science (Darwin or Heisenberg), political reflection (Marx or Schmidt), or any number of other fields such as anthropology or psychology. Most frequently, it is used to refer to major authors in 20th century intellectual history (Freud, Weber, Einstein, Eisenstein, Wittgenstein, Gramsci, Celan, etc.—Nietzsche often gets carried forward in this context). For the Centre, we use the phrase without a precise reference, since we take the term “modern” quite broadly. The aim is to allow for a broad historical reach (research on the Scottish Enlightenment could be pertinent to our work, for example) while suggesting, at the same time, that our appeal to modern thought is meant to stimulate reflection that is genuinely contemporary. The Centre should become a site for considering the guiding intellectual movements that have shaped possibilities for thinking in our time, and a platform for producing thinking that is, indeed, truly of our time. (Duncan Rice tends to describe the Centre in these terms when he presents it to others—it is a quite appropriate description: a consideration of the founding intellectual movements of the last century and an attempt to grasp where we stand today and the grounds on which we can move forward.)

I might also note that I use the term “thought” in lieu of a more common term that is showing signs of exhaustion in the contemporary context: “theory.” We witnessed in the last four decades of the last century a veritable intellectual revolution as European cross-disciplinary thinking swept across the fields of the humanities and the social sciences. The wave that took shape and touched every field in the latter domains, including significant areas of scientific research, was commonly named “theory” and constituted a veritable discipline in itself as scholars reflected on its guiding assumptions and applied them in various contexts. We see its influence everywhere today; in fact, theoretical work has now taken so many forms that it cannot be described in general terms. Thus, it would be inappropriate to say that the great enterprise of “theory” is reaching its end; if anything, it is dissipating as a result of its general success. But the term is increasingly associated with forms of work (particularly in cultural studies) that have proven shallow and have lost a strong connection with their intellectual heritage. The point of using “thought” is to recover that connection with intellectual history, particularly philosophy, and to suggest that it is not a matter of “applying” a particular set of critical tools. The aim is to engage with our history in a rigorous and broad sense.

Why the Centre?

I proposed the establishment of the Centre initially in order to offer a site for cross-disciplinary encounters on the Aberdeen campus and in order to host visitors from abroad. Principal Rice’s support of the project under the “Big Ideas” rubric then made it possible to institutionalize a more thorough-going vision. I believe that the Principal’s support was based, first, on his sense that we needed to complement our University’s rich historical offerings in the various fields with a greater representation of contemporary thinking. He was also eager to promote cross-disciplinary synergies. I proposed a structure that would work to stimulate such thinking across a range of disciplines. My goal was to pursue the agenda I described above with reference to the notion of modern thought while instituting a reflection on the relations between the various forms of knowledge (in the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences)Ñthe ambition being to bring forth their points of commonality and their points of divergence. The grounds of commonality are not as hard to identify as one might think; they are offered in large measure by research in contemporary theory (almost all fields of research today share a wide range of guiding presuppositions). The grounds of divergence are more difficult to articulate, despite appearances. But the challenge of defining the specificity of the contributions of the humanities, for example, is critically important in our increasingly technocratic era. And I am convinced that all disciplines benefit from a more healthy understanding of their limits and their potential relations to others, particularly when the goal is to address societal issues. In the end, our aim is to bring forth the respective strengths of the different forms of knowing (and the grounds of cooperation between them) in relation to the urgent concerns of our time. This is why I seek to pursue a “fundamental” reflection on modes of knowing in relation to guiding socio-political concerns of the contemporary world.

To put this in summary terms: The fundamental effort is to examine the historical grounds for contemporary thought in the context of key issues facing our societies in the modern world. A strong emphasis is placed on intellectual history and philosophical rigour, and our work is guided by the imperative of examining how the different disciplines can contribute to this conversation. We work with the assumption that cross-disciplinarity is vital to any serious effort to address contemporary issues, and with the further assumption that the conditions for cross-disciplinary encounters must be thoroughly explored.

There are research centres in various parts of the world that pursue an agenda in the area that I have defined as “modern thought”; but they are rare, and tend not to have the resources needed to realize the global visibility we seek (particularly at this historical moment when the humanities are in crisis). There are also precedents; various programmes or schools have achieved prominence at various moments over the past century. But I cannot think of contemporary research institutes that have quite the ambition we have at this point. I have been informed by my past experiences at the Humanities Centre at the Johns Hopkins University, or the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and I learned a great deal in Paris and Strasbourg in the 1970’s. More recently, my experience at the European Graduate School in Switzerland has shown me that contemporary theoretical reflection still has dynamic potential for significant groups of researchers. But I think that the Centre for Modern Thought is distinctive in its attempt to re-engage a broad form of reflection commensurate with the kind of thinking that attended the birth of the “human sciences” in post-war Europe. Commentators have noted that this is an effort to regain a deeply traditional sense of humanistic enquiry—an effort to regain the original range of humanistic thinking. I won’t hide that I am pleased at that thought, though I want to remain sober about this venture and place the emphasis on finding forms of thinking adequate to our modernity. The issue of cross-disciplinarity is key in that latter respect since no individual from any discipline can pretend, today, to embrace the totality of knowledge and human experience. Modern thought has demonstrated the essential impossibility of that ambition. Thus, cross-disciplinarity becomes an intellectual imperative and a vital challenge inasmuch as we seek to make our thinking pertinent to our time.

Will the Centre be the first of its kind?

Let me just say that my ambition is to make it an event.

But let me reiterate that I think institutions like it are urgently needed, particularly where the humanities are concerned. I believe fervently that humanistic thinking has to find ways of being of its time and that it has to do so while connecting with the rich legacies of modernity. I am hoping that the strong reference to intellectual history and the simultaneous reference to global socio-political concerns will make this venture unique. I am also hoping that the ambition of drawing out relations between contemporary forms of knowing (from art and literature through biochemistry and mathematics) will make this a distinctive undertaking. If we achieve a truly cross-disciplinary conversation, then this will prove an important venture in a global context.

Applications for positions in the Centre tell me that it is quite unique in Scotland. And I am gradually learning to appreciate how the importance of the venture might be linked to its location. What I mean to say is that I know we will have a global audience and global participation; and I’m sure this global visibility will be important for Aberdeen and for Scotland itself. But I am also interested in discovering ways of making the Centre a forum for reflection on socio-political issues that becomes significant for public discussion in Scotland. I think we have an opportunity to use the Centre to probe relations between the academy and the larger public world. This is a veritable research topic, and from what I have learned thus far, an important one. But I think there is something more important here: namely, an opportunity to explore in a practical way links between the academic and public spheres, and to contribute to transforming the relations between these domains. I have heard all sorts of characterizations of Scottish cultural and intellectual life, and I am not yet in a position to assess them (I have only been here for 16 months now!). I do sense, however, that Scotland is extremely fertile ground for a rich dialogue that spans the academy, the media, and the governmental sector.

What are areas of concern beyond the Academy, and core themes in the coming years?

The “proposal” available on our website enumerates a number of areas where we may concentrate our energies—you will find a list of topics on the second or third page. The staff hired for the Centre will help to determine how our focus evolves. But in the shorter term, we will be concentrating on political and legal philosophy, seeking to understand the fate of political life in the modern world. We have a strong concentration in political thought with the appointments of Professor Alberto Moreiras and Dr. Petar Bojanic, and an existing concentration in legal philosophy in our Law School, so we will seek to exploit this configuration.

We are in a period of very rapid development, so it is inappropriate to seek to be too precise about our longer-term plans. We have a considerable list of potential topics, and the list grows with each link we make. My focus, at present, is on the character of the intellectual community we are building. I suppose I could say that I am attending more to the cast of mind of our participants, at the present time, than to the specific topics. Obviously, the two concerns have to move in tandem, but I believe we must achieve a proper intellectual culture in our group. Next year, we hope to be hiring in the areas of Philosophy of Science and Art, and the individuals we engage will bring their own emphases and ambitions. I am also building more links across the Colleges at Aberdeen. It is a very interesting moment for us—full of promise and possibility.

Coming to Aberdeen

I have always been fascinated by academic institutions, and some years ago I became aware that my greatest desire was to contribute to building a fine university. (I believe I was guided in this ambition by the work of one of my friends and mentors at the Johns Hopkins University: Professor Richard Macksey, founder of the Humanities Center—we used to refer to him, fondly, as ”Mr. Hopkins“ because he was so widely involved in the life of the University and so devoted to it. He showed me that one should not think of one’s place in a University in narrow disciplinary terms.) I believe I have that opportunity here at Aberdeen, both through the Centre for Modern Thought and through other institutional involvements (I am also currently Head of the School of Language and Literature). But I must emphasize that in speaking of institutional opportunity, I am not thinking solely of opportunities for institution-building. Or, to put this more precisely, I am thinking of the way such opportunities are indissociable from their place in a larger intellectual context—in this case, the intellectual ambitions informing Principal Rice’s vision for the University of Aberdeen. I know, for example, that those ambitions inspire me to forge links with people across the University. Last week, I began to plan colloquia with staff in Mathematics; I might have dreamed of such things in the past, but here I am prompted to realize them. The Library Project is another tremendously inspiring project in this respect. I am delighted to be involved with you in the planning of a series of talks related to the idea of the library in the 21st century and ”the architecture of learning“—surely this belongs within the purview of the Centre for Modern Thought. And what an honour to be able to participate in this Project! My point is that the opportunity I sense here is intimately guided by the University’s commitment to intellectual vitality and its vision of what a modern university can be. The Centre for Modern Thought is only possible because of the University of Aberdeen’s willingness and capacity to support dynamic new projects in a significant way. But Aberdeen also happens to be an ideal site for it by reason of its intellectual ambitions.