A Greeting from the Max Planck Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte, Berlin
From Prof. Dagmar Schäfer, Director
It is a real honour to congratulate the University of Amsterdam on establishing the Vossius Centre. Research at the Vossius Centre touches upon one of the most central issues of our times: why and how knowledge branches out, how methodologies are historically formed, institutionalised or disappear. With a special focus on the effects of a 19th century (Anglophone) distinction between ‘humanities’ and ‘science’, it invites researchers to think post-disciplinarily and to innovate through interaction.
Academic disciplines have a long and global history. Their existence reflects the fact that an essential part of human life is to order and structure the things we encounter every day. As the world is dynamic and complex, so are the branches of knowledge that have arisen and gone out of use. Not all branches have hitherto received equal attention though, nor do we understand equally all the regional varieties that have evolved. In recent years, this has led to the formation of various initiatives enquiring further into the nature and practices of knowledge – its historical, social, economic and political contextualisation in various institutional settings (From Berlin to Chicago to Zürich and other places).
The Vossius Centre will provide an apposite home for research into humanities’ methods, including how academic disciplines have connected or separated, and what effect this has had. The centre will bring a timely focus onto an academic agenda which is both challenging and necessary. The ‘humanities’ embraces diverse branches of knowledge that have traditionally reflected intensively on their own histories, yet rarely done so jointly or comparatively and, even rarer still, investigated this from a global perspective. It is also true that humanities are historically contingent, so it is particularly welcome that the centre is providing an inclusive invitation to think about a new ‘post-disciplinary’ approach. Indeed, if the 19th century scholarly community in Europe and the US invented the distinction between the humanities and science, and the 20th century’s achievement was to undermine such disciplinary boundaries and authorities with its increasing interest in trans-, inter- or cross-disciplinary approaches, then this is where we should be heading as the 21st century develops.
The centre will thus set out from a given to explore what it would mean to pursue and innovate research within and outside categories that were – and are – identifiably local, and artificially and contingently construed. Superficial distinctions are frequently created between things, when none is needed. History provides a window onto alternative views. In a world of limited resources and the growing marketisation of education and knowledge, managing disciplinarity is immensely important. But, as traditional disciplinary arrangements are tested – by crossing and intermingling them – and become increasingly less relevant as isolated debates, we find ourselves moving ever closer to a post-disciplinary world of shifting specialisations and special interest areas, which will profit from reflecting on where the work could have gone and where it might be going to in the future. This is the mission that the Vossius Centre aims to fulfil.