The Impact of Research in the Humanities
Contemporary pressures for the humanities to prove their practical impact have put them under a demand to become accountable for what they do, often according to forms and systems of accountability that involve contestable assumptions unsuitable for humanistic research, while at the same time ignoring significant substantive dimensions of the research conducted in their diverse disciplines. The paper argues, firstly, that the notion of impact is itself ambiguous and should be put under scrutiny. Secondly, a closer study of the research strategies, methods and methodologies deployed in the diverse fields of humanistic research shows that there are many “family resemblances” between the research conducted in the humanities, on the one hand, and that conducted in the natural sciences, on the other. The traditional dichotomy of the two “scientific cultures” needs to be reconsidered. Thirdly, a closer look at the history of the humanities shows that, far from being engaged merely or primarily with “high culture” and the formation of bildung, and far from being detached from earthly concerns in a supposedly isolated ivory tower, ideas and findings in the humanities have led to significant innovations and breakthroughs in a number of scientific as well as technological fields. They have also resulted in applications with immense impact in society. In our present turbulent and unstable circumstances, the humanities may furnish a locus for a renewal of “reason’s capacity to be public”; by addressing “the world at large” (Kant), they may help re-situate the growing power of technology within broader societal concerns, seeking a coherent vision, a unity of focus and reflexive orientation towards meeting human needs.
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