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'Speech ballon' by Marc Wathieu

Speech balloon by Marc Wathieu

Rest assured: the humanities are not in crisis. But, suggests Gideon Rosen in a recent article, they do suffer from a PR problem. Where the sciences have hoards of journalists eager to help their findings permeate wider intellectual culture—think: climate change, the Higgs boson, DNA—much of the work of humanistic scholars remains stuck within a community of experts. As current disciplinary classifications go, this concerns us too, historians of modern philosophy.

Rosen recommends some strategies to mitigate the perceived problem, and I encourage everyone to read his full article. Here, however, I want to consider a more specific question: What would an ideal PR system for the domain of history of modern philosophy aim to achieve, anyway?

One shape it might take is a dedicated effort to fill gaps in communication of what we do. Perhaps we must do more to explicate to the non-initiates the significance of the first systematic reading of Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, the revisionary analysis of Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, or a new comparison of various proofs of plastic natures. Do it well, and these contributions of contemporary scholars become anchor points for an interested wider audience. PR challenge met.

At the same time there seems to be something fishy about a situation in which the findings of contemporary researchers take center stage. A dissenting voice may say that when we do our work well, we as scholars become transparent. Our work lets the reader see the polemics, letters, and lines of thought from the periods that we’re discussing—Cavendish’s metaphysics of body, Leibniz’s views on the expression of desire, and the various proofs of plastic natures. It’s about those dead people, their long running disputes, their resonating arguments. Such transparency sits rather uncomfortably with a well-functioning PR machine as just sketched, even when there’s no strict contradiction. What’s there to market about something unseen? Choose this route, and the PR problem is bound to persist.

So we’re left with a dilemma. Would scholars working on the history of modern philosophy do good to intensify efforts to make a wider audience see their own and colleagues’ specific contributions? Or is becoming increasingly transparent our best goal?

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