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9 1 Frameworks or Tools? On the Status of Concepts in Humanistic Inquiry This is a study of two closely related concepts—“will” and “person”— which have proven indispensable to Western humanistic inquiry and its ongoing,­ albeit enormously diverse, attempts to develop a satisfactory account of human agency. More implicitly, what follows is also a study of our changed relationship to concepts and, hence, to the nature, purpose, and responsibility of thinking and knowledge. The argument to be advanced hinges on a number of interlocking claims and objectives that should be sketched right away, if only in preliminary fashion. A first claim is historical in kind, albeit just as emphatically not historicist. Its purport is that, for reasons to be considered shortly, both will and person—as well as a number of other key concepts of humanistic inquiry entwined with these notions—undergo momentous and, I argue, deeply problematic change in European modernity. First, the scope of their relevancy to humanistic inquiry, as indeed that very project itself, contracts. Second, for a variety of reasons having to do with transformations internal to philosophical theology and the rise of naturalist and reductionist approaches sponsored by the emergence of a scientific culture in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the internal coherence of these key concepts and their centrality within humanistic (interpretive) inquiry erodes over time. Finally, given modernity’s accelerating commitment to an ostensibly value-neutral ideal of knowledge anchored in efficient causation alone, conceptions of a responsible will and a person defined by its relation to others are progressively relegated to the margins of philosophical ­ inquiry. 10 prolegomena Along with a host of contiguous notions (e.g., judgment, responsibility, self-­ awareness, teleology, etc.), they ultimately succumb to a process of pervasive forgetting . As remains to be seen, such forgetting was inevitable considering the extent to which post-Hobbesian thought had lost sight of, or had rejected outright, the ancient view that both the meaning and the significance of humanistic concepts are inseparable from their complex and often agonistic history of transmission. To approach modernity as a condition of progressive conceptual amnesia, which in turn results in an increasingly stunted outlook on human agency, undoubtedly will ruffle some feathers in what (often at its own peril) for the past thirty-five years or so has been reconstituted as the “profession” of the humanities. A first way of arguing the point would be to establish a causal connection between modernity’s diminishing grasp of concepts as dialectically evolving, hermeneutic frameworks and the professionalization of humanistic knowledge that, in David Simpson’s pointed formulation, has all but become “divorced from content” and is vaguely presumed to be “useful in itself.”1 For however one may feel about it, there can be no question that for the past four decades or so, the humanities (especially in North America) have undergone enormous change as regards their institutional cache, their methodological orientation, and, ultimately, their perceived object of inquiry. Notably, as the preoccupation with finding a “definitive” method of inquiry intensified, the identity of the object or core questions to be engaged by humanistic study seemed to grow more obscure. Post-structuralism (in its various psychoanalytic, philosophical, anthropological , or aesthetic guises), deconstruction, new historicism, cultural materialism , queer studies, post-colonialism, and the more recent incursion of neuro-­ scientific methodologies into the humanities are just some of the more conspicuous instances of this shift. Cumulatively these approaches reveal how a proliferation of methodologies tends to shift the object of inquiry and inflate the number of sub-­ specializations, while simultaneously shrinking their intellectual scope; one is left with the impression of a rather dubious mathematical procedure, something we might call multiplication-by-division. To be sure, the quest for a sharply defined method, reliable in its application and guaranteed to produce marketable results, hardly amounts to a new development; it had crucially shaped European modernity in the era of Bacon, Boyle, Gassendi, Newton, and Leibniz, and if anything its much belated arrival and euphoric reception in (American) humanistic inquiry in 1966 at the newly inaugurated Johns Hopkins Humanities Center seemed to betoken a new, heightened legitimacy for the humanities as a bona fide science. Not considered, however, was the question, previously raised by Hans-Georg Gadamer’s Truth and Method, as to whether a commitment to some determinate 1. Academic Postmodern, 7. Frameworks or Tools? 11 method within the humanities might not entail unwarranted and unsustainable assumptions about the kind of knowledge to be thus produced. Indeed, the proliferation...


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