• June 21-22, 2013
  • Max Planck Institute for the History of Science
  • Berlin

All disciplines that deal with long-lived and culturally dispersed traditions confront a shared conceptual and methodological predicament: what to make of materials – literary and religious texts, works of art, scientific data and arguments – that are generated in highly specific historical contexts and received (even revered) in other, multiple contexts, each equally specific, but all crucially different from one another and from the milieu of origin? Still more puzzling, what to make of materials that are generated in entirely different places and periods and yet seem to bear a startling resemblance to one another – whether defined by morphological, conceptual, or stylistic analogy? If the hallmark of all the modern historical disciplines is a princess-and-the-pea sensibility to anachronisms, nothing could be more disturbing than these epoch-hopping similarities.

For classicists, philosophers, and literary historians, this challenge is intrinsic to the self-definition of their disciplines: canons are what „stands the test of time.” But what exactly is that test, and how strongly is it inflected by local circumstances? For historians of art and science, weaned on narratives of progress (invented by Vasari for art and taken over by Bacon for technology and d’Alembert for the sciences) or at least restless innovation, persistence is even more perplexing. Resurrections of ideas, texts, and styles are as troubling to the historians of these genres as miraculous resurrections of the body are to dyed-in-the-wool skeptics. Appeals to some universal theory of human nature no longer seem viable, given the failure of  such explanations in the past, which can account for neither variability nor for selectivity. The contextual approaches that have dominated most of the humanities in the past two decades, which seek to explain the generation and reception of works of literature, philosophy, art, and science, by embedding them firmly in a particular then-and-there, have only sharpened the challenge of explaining that which endures or recurs across epochs and cultures.

This workshop gathers a small group of classicists, literary historians, and historians of philosophy, art, and science to reflect upon this shared predicament. Participants will NOT be asked to present papers. Instead, each of us should prepare brief reflections on our topic (maximum 2 pp.) and a concrete example from our own work with which to illustrate them – in the form of a primary text, an image, whatever best brings out the aspects of the problem you wish to highlight. We will make up a reader of all these, to be precirculated among us. At the conference itself each of us will have 10-15 minutes to frame his/her example; the rest of our time together will be devoted to discussion. Discussion is the object of the workshop, not formal papers or an edited volume.

Workshop organizers: Lorraine Daston (MPIWG), Constanze Güthenke (Princeton), and Brooke Holmes (Princeton)


Friday, 21 June

Welcome and Introduction

Lorraine Daston


Shane Butler


Constanze Güthenke

Andrew Cole


Caroline Bynum

Saturday, 22 June

Précis of Friday’s Discussions

Dominick Perler


Elisabeth Hsu


Glenn Most

Brooke Holmes


Yve-Alain Bois

17:00-c. 18:00:
Concluding Discussion