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  • Irenic Scholarship and Public Affairs:A Report on the Skidmore Conference
  • Jeffrey M. Perl (bio)

"Excellence Is by No Means Enough: Intellectual Philanthropy and the Just University"—a provocation by Stanley N. Katz—appeared in the fall 2002 issue of Common Knowledge. Much of Katz's guest column was hortatory and practical, but he concluded in full visionary mode:

To this point in my exposition, I have made it seem that the academy is a place for the pursuit of righteousness, though within limits we have not as a community thoroughly explored. Now, I want to suggest that making our universities just is no longer enough. Partly I am responding to, and partly in agreement with, Jeffrey Perl's temperate indictment, in these pages (8.1: 2–5), of justice—or the fixation on justice—as itself an impediment to peace. But mostly I am suggesting that what is demanded of us as academics may be less than what is demanded of us as intellectuals. There has been . . . since September 11th, a series of appeals in print for something new under the sun: "intellectual philanthropy" could be a tentative name for it. Lorraine Daston has argued in the London Review of Books that our public problems are now hermeneutic more than technical and has expressed the hope that "students of the symbolic" will now deal with "enormously complex problems" of commensuration that we have been ignoring and can no longer ignore. Keith Thomas has lectured the British Academy on "the need for scholars [End Page 1] to dispel mutual incomprehension," a need that he traces historically but that he goes on to assert is at the present time more pressing than ever. Similar assessments have come from journalists like Flora Lewis in the Herald-Tribune and (in a rather less embraceable way) Peter Beinart in the New Republic. Universities cannot in themselves be expected to take on tasks such as those defined by these writers, but intellectuals without frontiers—working together through journals, centers, and ad hoc associations—can certainly do so, and must.

obstacles to commensuration, communication, and comprehension as is humanly plausible. Scholars in the humanities and human sciences have particular skills, much as the physicians who volunteer for Médecins sans Frontières do, to offer in times of crisis. Scholars are less uniquely talented at solving public problems than at clarifying what a problem (as opposed to a pseudo-problem) is and what counts as a solution. Our task, then, is to find and fund limited and well-defined projects that will apply our theoretical training and experience to urgent problems whose full complexities have as yet gone untended. My hope is that readers of this journal will respond with more or less detailed proposals that the editors and members of the editorial board can assist them in developing to fruition. For if we do not undertake these vital hermeneutic tasks today, who will do so and when?

(8.3: 437–38)

In the three years since this piece appeared, an advisory board has formed to oversee initiatives of the kind that Katz envisioned. Its members, in addition to him, are Caroline Walker Bynum, Lorraine Daston, Natalie Zemon Davis, Fang Lizhi, Joseph Frank, Clifford Geertz, Stephen Greenblatt, Jürgen Habermas, György Konrád, Bruno Latour, Jacques Le Goff, Adam Michnik, Sari Nusseibeh, Richard Rorty, Amartya Sen, G. Thomas Tanselle, Sir Keith Thomas, Robert Weisbuch, and Israel J. Yuval; until her death, Susan Sontag was also a member. Edward Cardinal Cassidy of the Vatican diplomatic corps has agreed to serve as our initiatives' patron. On May 12–13, 2005, a working subgroup—consisting of Bynum, Geertz, Nusseibeh, Weisbuch, and Yuval, along with President Philip Glotzbach of Skidmore College, three editors of the journal (Alick Isaacs, Lawrence Jones, and myself), and a representative of Duke University Press (Cason Lynley)—met at Skidmore to discuss the intellectual and practical opportunities. We were encouraged, as Katz suggested we should be, by Daston's argument that scholars in the famously useless humanities had developed skills that could prove valuable now. (Daston had meant specifically the arcane analytic skills and obsessive [End Page 2] attention to methodology that are thought to...