Felipe Fernández-Armesto

May 19, 2006

I once had a teacher whose special field was, he said, "English history, September 1 to 10, 1752". Those were the days that disappeared when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar. I decided that academic specialisation was a vice. So the fashion for interdisciplinary projects should please me, but the gatherings I go to just seem depressing.

If pioneers organise a cross-disciplinary seminar series, most students turn up only when their subject is centre stage. When academies or institutes arrange conferences, heirophants talk past each other or congregate in gaggles and ghettos. Some disciplines are so mired in their own jargon that their contributions are unintelligible to outsiders. Some practitioners are intellectual Luddites with such a heavy investment in their traditional methods that they actively resist the extraordinary.

Others are ideologues. Ideology easily transgresses disciplinary boundaries. Some scientists abuse interdisciplinarity as a pretext for denying that culture operates differently from nature. Some in the humanities and social studies see interdisciplinary arenas as mission fields in which they proselytise for political agendas or for or against intellectual fashions and creeds - especially feminism, relativism, physicalism and multiculturalism. Any or all of these may be good in themselves, but academics rarely care to be evangelised, even in a good cause. And interdisciplinary projects work best if collaborators learn from each other, declining to privilege any particular technique or approach.

But the biggest problem arises from a kind of myopia. Most academics are so specialised they cannot see the relevance to their work of unfamiliar aspects of their own fields, let alone those of others. Few consider problems big enough or basic enough to make them engage with other people's wisdom.

Long ago I had high hopes that my fellow historians would light beacons for interdisciplinary study. History ought to be the least self-regarding discipline because anyone can do it. Some of my favourite historians are lawyers, scientists and nuns. Everyone is, in a general sense, a historian because everyone has experience, memory and knowledge of the past and some reason for recalling some of it. Nothing is outside his range of interest because everything is part of the past - including any sort of future we have imagined. A historian who knows nothing of science or art or literature or economics or philosophy or theology or anthropology or archaeology will be a poor historian - deficient in evidence, deprived of ideas.

Yet some historians cling to impoverishingly narrow definitions of their remit, insisting or assuming that only written evidence will do and that the only real writing is the kind we do now; or that even among written documents, fiction or poetry can be ignored; or that the ecological contexts of human lives are irrelevant - even in connection with obvious areas of human dependency on other species, such as food or disease; or that the physical environment can be ignored despite the tyrannies of winds and weather; or that you can evaluate evidence without knowing enough neurological science to see how memory works; or that the cultures of non-human species have no useful comparisons to offer; or that psychological insights are inadmissible; or that anthropological examples are "presentist"; or that areas of life, such as language or sleep or food or dance or psychosis, can be resigned to specialisms of their own.

History is about change in the lives of humans - the world's most volatile and mutable cultural species. Yet most historians are so fixated on a few instances of change that they forget to look for help in understanding change, at changes in other worlds, at other moments and in other fields.

Philosophers might be more broad-minded, because they are used to thinking at the highest possible levels of generalisation and analysis. I have recently taken part in interdisciplinary symposia in which philosophers constituted the biggest contingents. They seemed absorbed in their own debates, convinced - for the most part - that being interdisciplinary meant teaching philosophy to non-philosophers. My first conference with them was at the Academy of Athens, where the most widely cited authors were Plato and Aristotle; the second in Rome, where Aristotle and Aquinas were dominant. Nothing nowadays is so amazing as a stereotype enfleshed. I got a sense of a kind of philosophical fundamentalism, trapped by texts the group deferred to. "These writers don't speak of everything," I said. "Their works don't anticipate all our problems."

"They are more than contemporary," replied a fellow conférenciant . "They are universal and eternal." Maybe - but they got that way by challenging conventions, transcending boundaries, unifying learning, unfettering thought.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is Prince of Asturias professor of history at Tufts University in the US.

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