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2002-2003 Seminar: Objectivity, Ethics, and the Disciplines

This seminar will be devoted to a consideration of the paradoxes implicit in the questions of objectivity, interest, and ethics, particularly as they relate to the “disciplines.” As areas directly related to these questions not only in method but in subject matter, epistemological and social- scientific theory and evolutionary biology (and sociobiology) will play an important role in seminar discussions. But in an attempt to understand their dominant assumptions and methods the seminar’s larger goal will be to examine disciplinary standards, values, and authority, how they are invoked or elided or avoided. Every intellectual discipline has its standards of evidence, its analytic methods, its means for determining valid and invalid work. Epistemological and ethical standards are, at least officially, understood to govern the work of each discipline, even where significant parts of its work are devoted to studies meant to undermine standards of objectivity and to debunk the ethical imperatives that are traditionally understood to govern them.

The focus of study then will be on questions of disciplinary authority: of objectivity and altruism, and ethics as they actually impinge on, determine, or remain irrelevant to the real work of scholars and critics. It will explore the questions of objectivity and disinterest (with their philosophical connections to epistemology and ethics) by considering the actual standards exercised and affirmed by the disciplines. By looking at real practice, the way scholars frame and define their own work, it will attempt to get at the nuance of practice as well as at the coherence of theory, the way people distinguish between more and less convincing arguments and do so by evaluating degrees of partiality, sufficiency of critical method, adherence to disciplinary norms, the (more or less) objective adequacy of the material gathered and affirmed.

Whatever the theoretical arguments developed for or against the possibility of objectivity or disinterest, the actual practice of scholars and the very existence of disciplines suggest that there continue to exist at least working versions of objectivity, standards of competent work, ethical imperatives that drive the work and need to be recognized by and within the various disciplines. While all working scholars and critics recognize the degree to which intellectual activity is pushed by the interests of scholars to make their names, achieve prominence, advance in their work, very few would argue that everything in the production of disciplinary knowledge is reducible to a form of self-interest. By encouraging directly a self-conscious consideration of the assumptions that underlie particular scholarly projects in relation to problems of objectivity and disinterest, the seminar will attempt to get at ways in which ideals of objectivity and disinterest (often paradoxically) survive the work of undermining them, and push forward to less extreme and more nuanced ways of understanding both the work of the disciplines and whether objectivity and disinterest survive the skepticism that has surrounded them in contemporary thought.

For the purposes of the seminar, the subjects for study need not be directly involved with issues of objectivity and altruism, although such subjects will be welcome. But the seminar’s larger purpose will always be to think through the issues, practical and theoretical, that relate to the epistemological and ethical imperatives that are at work in any disciplinary (or multidisciplinary) work. What, in the end, ought to authorize, validate, or falsify arguments? To what degree does the work of scholarship actually require objectivity and disinterest?

Thus, the CCACC invites applications of at least three kinds: ones that describe projects on any subject from any discipline, so long as these also include consideration of the disciplinary standards of scholarly authority that will ultimately validate them; ones that treat directly of disciplinary history, procedures, and evaluative modes (like that, for example, of Peter Novick, in That Noble Dream); ones that are concerned more theoretically or philosophically with questions about objectivity and ethics (studies of current efforts to naturalize morality, as in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, will be particularly welcome and to the point of the overall concerns of the seminar).

Director: George Levine (English)
Faculty Fellows: Jason Francisco (Visual Arts), Edwin Hartman (Philosophy), Angelique Haugerud (Anthropology), Candace McCoy (Criminal Justice), Dennis Patterson (Law), Patricia Roos (Sociology), Shuang Shen (English), Arlene Stein (Sociology)
Predoctoral Fellows: Tanya Agathocleous (English), Joseph Gabriel (History), Matthew Kaiser (English), Chantelle Marlor (Sociology), James Mulholland (English), Michele Rotunda (History)
External Fellows: Amanda Anderson (English, Johns Hopkins U.), Jonathan Loesberg (Literature, American U.)

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