Practising Re:Enlightenment: the experimental concept lab

23 January 2013, 16:30 - 18:30

Room 204, CLAS Meeting Room, Alison Richard Building

Mellon Teaching Seminar

Intending participants should click on the link at the right hand side of the page for registration information and course outline. The deadline is 18 January 2013.

Convenors 

Peter de Bolla (Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics, Faculty of English, University of Cambridge)

Clifford Siskin (Henry W and Alfred A Berg Professor of English and American Literature, New York University/  Leverhulme Visiting Professor at CRASSH)

Summary

Candidates for doctoral degrees are expected to undertake research that is a ‘contribution to knowledge’.  It is left unclear as to whether such contributions are to be large or small, significant or insignificant, but the silent assumption is that PhD candidates should be in the business of advancing knowledge.  We don’t want any old stuff.  But how can knowledge be made to advance?

This course invites graduate students from across the disciplines in the humanities and social sciences to participate in an experiment.  We believe that advancements in knowledge are most likely to occur if we attend to the concepts we use for making sense of the world and ourselves.  Indeed once we have a better grasp on the structure of concepts themselves, once we ascertain how their architectures enable and disable knowing, we may be able to identify where, why and how specific concepts block understanding thereby leading to knowledge getting stuck.  Or, conversely, we may be able to identify what is within the internal wiring of a concept that leads to our understanding in this case.  Both of these scenarios, we believe, may also help us identify concepts that are used up, that no longer do what we want them to, or those that need replacing or augmenting.  They may also lead us to conclude that we need to build a new conceptual form.

But how do we go about doing that?  Our aim is to attempt some answers in an experimental concept lab.  Although the group will be directed to some concepts that we have thought about and consider ripe for this experimental treatment, we expect participants to bring some candidates themselves.  This is a practical, joint venture in devising a methodology and a practice for advancing knowledge at a moment when it threatens—to use Francis Bacon’s word for an earlier problem of advancement—to stall.

The eight sessions will be split into two sections.  The first four meetings will use a historical optic to set out how and why we believe a solution to our current problem is the experimental concept lab.  Participants will be expected to have read a small group of texts in advance of these sessions as background material.  The second half of the course will be devoted to the task of subjecting four concepts to our particular practice of conceptual analysis that will be introduced in the first half.  Each of these sessions will – with luck – begin the task of ‘culturing’ some new concepts that will help participants in their quest to advance knowledge.