Humanities Center Director: Thomas Wilson

The Secular Gaze: Humanistic Representations of the World

In a series of workshops, presentations, and guest speakers, the Humanities Forum will explore the problem of secular humanism in the modern academy. As an intellectual orientation, secularism has profoundly shaped how human cultures of the past as well as of modern times are interpreted in the Humanities. Indeed, since the beginning of the modern academy, secular criticism has been widely regarded as the sine qua non of the Humanities. As a product of the modern academy, however, secular perspectives view the world through conceptual prisms that refract and often uncritically reorganize the world of things in their own image. The limits of secularism are most evident in historical and literary scholarship on ancient cultures, in which modern secular assumptions are absent. And yet, a humanistic hermeneutic that uncritically reproduces its own modern presuppositions when applied to modern texts is no less problematic than one that insinuates secular discourses into a pre-modern context that is fundamentally at odds with it. As such, a critical examination of modern secular discourses benefits humanistic research on antiquity and on the present. This Forum proposes to examine secularism’s philosophical foundations and historical permutations, its theoretical implications for modern scholarship on pre-modern societies, and its practical effects on current images of non-secular sectors of America – particularly fundamentalist movements – and of other contemporary societies, especially the Islamic world.